What I did on my day off (Part 1)

Yesterday I took a day of annual leave to sort out some issues pertaining to our upcoming emigration.

Stage 1: Renewal of Driver’s Licence Card

I woke up earlier (7am) than usual (8am), so that I could be at the Randburg Licencing Department to renew my driver’s licence card. It expires in August 2010, which will cause unnecessary inconvenience if I plan to drive overseas.

I got there at around 7:50, walked past a security guard holding what looked like a Remington shotgun. We greeted each other as we passed, me saying “Sure, baba” (pronounced “Sho’”), and him returning the greeting with “Heita”.

I walked around the parking lot to the building complex, which is in the heart of the Randburg CBD. For the out-of-towners, allow me to describe the Randburg CBD. Well, for starters, they have security guards armed with shotguns. Plus, because this is the land of entrepreneurs, you are shouted at by tens of photographers as you walk 150 metres. This is because the government departments have unofficially outsourced the taking of photographs.

There were two buildings that looked like possible places to renew a driver’s licence card. I trusted my instincts that the one with the shortest queue was the right place, and walked in. I asked one of the security guards at the front where one would go to renew a licence, and he handed me a form.

Before I left home, I checked out advice on the Internet for this process, and was told to “take a black pen with you”. I’m glad I did. I filled in the form (putting the year as 2009 in a cunning test to see if the government officials were awake by mistake), and asked the surly kindly security guard (he was probably armed with a grenade launcher behind the desk for all I know) about the photograph requirements. I had brought several thousand colour pictures of myself after all.

“Black and white”.

“Bah”.

So I asked him and his colleague where the cheapest and best photographs could be had. They told me “the Rasta man” and indicated that he wore some form of headgear. I walked outside and directly towards the throng of entrepreneurs*, shouting “I want the Rasta man”. He shortly presented himself and in broken English, pointed me towards a tent nearby, where a man was sitting next to a (semi-) white backdrop and HP photo-printer. I asked him how much, he told me R45 for four, and we did the deal. As a side note, my pose looks quite similar to my October 1997 ID photo, which is ironic.

As I walked back from the throng of entrepreneurial spirit, one of the mob separated himself from the crowd and asked me who told me to use the Rasta man’s services. I said “I asked at the front desk and they suggested him”. He was unimpressed with this answer, and although I ignored him* and continued up the path, he followed me.

Just inside the door, he asked me again to identify the person who told me to use the Rasta man. I said, “Look, I’m sorry, but I asked who I should use. I understand you have competition for your business, but I’m not going to tell you who suggested Rasta man, because I don’t want him to get into trouble.”

He eventually backed off. I think he remembered that these guys have low-yield nuclear weapons under their chairs for security reasons, and went back to the throng outside.

So back in the licencing building, I showed the security guard my completed form and photographs, and he pointed me upstairs to “Room Triple-Two”. I took the stairs, saw a stencilled sign with some scribble on it, pointing the way.

In room C222 (“Driver’s Licence Renewals”), there was the standard municipal government queuing system: several rows of chairs, and when the person in front is served, everybody stands up and moves one chair closer. It works surprisingly well.

I arrived in position number eleven, asked where the end of the queue was, and sat down. This is where it got amusing. Keep in mind that we’re in a small room, sitting on chairs, most of us without a pen, and there is no air conditioning. Or an open window. Right.

At the front of the room where the action is, is a desk with an eye-test machine, a desk where someone fills in forms, and a desk where a man sticks your photos to the form and takes your thumb prints**.

One of the department’s employees (a little old white lady with a strong English accent – I mention this, because it is unexpected) comes in and asks if everyone has a copy of their identity documents. I see people handing her their green barcoded ID books (you know, the ones we’re told never to give to strangers or let out of our sight), and she vanishes into oblivion.

Then another side dish of amusement: we’re given forms to fill in before we’re served, to make the process move faster. There is an original form and a duplicate (on the same piece of paper, oriented to landscape, and which are torn apart down the middle). One imagines that the original goes off to Pretoria to be processed, while the duplicate stays behind in Randburg. It’s an assumption, and as we discovered later in the day, one should never assume anything with government departments.

There is a big white block on the form, with a thick black border around it, where you must put in your specimen signature for scanning and putting on the licence card. They explicitly tell you to sign inside the block on the form. The man who handed out the form also told everyone in the queue, as he handed out each form, to sign within the black square and not go outside the lines.

One person in front of me, an old man, went outside the line and asked for a replacement. This made the form-giving man grumpy, but he gave him a new one.

Then a man of Indian descent (I point this out because South Africans might claim to be a rainbow nation, but we’re still all racists and it’s pointless denying it) asks for a new form because he, too, went outside the lines.

Then the form-man started shouting at him. He told him, “I’m not giving you a new form because I already gave you one and I told you not to go outside the lines, but you went outside the lines. If you’re going to behave like a child, I will treat you like a child. Come back another time.”

And that’s the funny-because-you’d-cry-otherwise part: he was being serious. He would not serve the Indian man because he wrote over the line when he did his signature. It was extraordinary. Of course this threw the other two department table-sitters into a frenzy (when I say frenzy, they actually just agreed with form-man about going outside the lines). Eventually, the Indian man was given another form, but it was clear that he was being made an example of.

Then again, I managed to stay in the lines.

Eventually I made it to the front of the queue (it took about 20 minutes, I would estimate), and did the eye test. The man operating the machine filled in my form for me (and didn’t notice my 2009 mistake), so I didn’t have to sit at form-man’s desk (thankfully!), and then got to the fingerprint-man’s desk.

Keeping in mind the fuss about the citizen going outside the lines and wasting department stationery, and the huge example that was made of him, it was amusing (to me, anyway) that fingerprint-man fluffed one of the fingerprints on the woman who was ahead of me, and had to fill in a new form anyway.

Now came the part where you pay, in another room. I went to the desk and put down all the pieces of paper we’d filled in. The lady asked me whether I wanted a temporary driver’s licence, and I said “I do not”. Apparently, to her, that sounded like “Yes”.

Meanwhile, I heard through the bullet-proof glass that the licence renewal costs R165, so being short of the correct money, I put down R205 in the hope of getting two R20 notes back. She looked at this in disdain and said “Two-One-Five”. I said, “But you said it was One-Six-Five.”

She said, “You asked for a temporary licence.” I said, “No I didn’t. Why would I want to pay R50 for something I don’t need?” and then I proceeded to show her my current licence, which expires in August 2010. She said, “But I’ve printed it now.”

When I left, I had paid R215 and had a temporary licence that I didn’t need. I figured I didn’t want to start the third world war because of the incompetence of S LANGA (who received my money, according to the temporary licence).

I got back to my car by 8:50am, which was a successful morning. Now it was on to the police station. [Read the rest in Part 2.]

* South Africa is not for sissies.

** South Africa takes fingerprints for everything involving government departments. Everything.