Traffic Jam By Daniela Cohen

Traffic Jam

By Daniela Cohen

Published on Sun, Mar 08 2009 by Daniela Cohen
What a way to start the week! I joined another fifteen people congregating in the drizzle outside the Green Point Traffic Department. I had come in to book a date to take my learner’s license test, something that apparently could only be done in person. I was told the place opened at 8a.m. Ten minutes past and we were still waiting. It struck me as ironic that the people around me had made the effort to be here extra early while the people inside couldn’t even manage to open the doors on time. That was just the beginning.

A guard at the entrance asked my purpose and directed me to a window not yet open. Another ten minutes went by. Finally, a man exited a room nearby and sauntered over to the area. He casually lifted the screen. At this rate, I had visions of remaining there all day. He moved methodically through the queue and then it was my turn. I was given application forms and directed to room number five, “that way.” I entered a space with rows of chairs. The first few seats on the far right of the first row were occupied. It appeared this was the place to wait. I sat down in the next empty seat, watching this stage of the procedure, specifically the vision test, being performed. It seemed relatively quick, uncomplicated. I kept moving one chair to the right. When it came my turn, I went into the cubicle and sat down in front of the tester. He explained what to do. I understood nothing. I politely asked him if he could repeat it. Listening as carefully as I could, I had a moment of panic, imagining what I would do if I still didn’t get it. I looked through the lenses and then I saw what he meant. Whew! Easy! Afterwards he directed me to counter twelve, “around the other side.”

I walked back, seeing signs for all counters except that one. Then I spotted the people who had been in front of me in room number five, and headed for that queue.

“Is this counter twelve?” I asked, wanting to be sure. The guy in front of me smiled.
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“Ja. That one beside it is counter eleven, so they cross over to this one now.”

When I reached the counter, the woman monotoned, “Sixty rand.” She didn’t look at me. “I’d really appreciate the earliest test date you have,” I said, attempting to send positive vibes her way. She didn’t look up.

“The computer will tell us,” she informed me.

It turned out the earliest date was the end of July! She said I could speak to the manager in room number four if I wanted something sooner. I traipsed off to the fourth location of the day. There was a lone elderly man with spectacles peering through some papers. He said he thought there might be a time available on March 16th. If not, I’d have to stick with the July date. I returned to the counter. There was a man in front of me, but no one behind the window. Just as I was wondering where the woman had gone, I noticed her silhouette in the back room. She was holding what appeared to be her colleague’s baby, oohing and aahing. My smile at the cute infant disappeared as the minutes went by and she made no move to return to her post. The man in front of me remarked that if you said something, “They treat you bad.” My patience was fading fast. I went up to the counter beside us and pointedly asked the young man there, "Is someone serving here?”
He waved a hand dismissively, “Oh, she’ll come.”
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It was almost twenty minutes before the woman decided to resume working. When I got to the counter, she was in the process of peeling a naartje. I told her that the manager had said I could take the test on March 16th.

�“We’ll see in the computer,” she said, continuing to jabber away loudly to the guy in beside her. “No, no March 16th.” My heart fell. “March 26th only.”

“Great!” I said, feeling my heart rate lower dramatically. She printed out a copy of my receipt. I glanced over it as I began to walk away. I turned back, excusing myself to the young guy behind me. “You’ve got my name wrong. Daniel is a boy’s name,” I said. She begrudgingly got back into my booking, her fingers barely moving on the keyboard. Finally I held a copy of the paper confirming my test date and correct name in my hand. It was 9.30 a.m. Just enough time to get back to work before my first class.

The day did not end there. Later that day, I had another dose of South African government expertise. It was the second time I was talking to the woman at the passport office in Johannesburg. I had applied for my passport in June last year, and was told at the time that it could take six months. There was nothing to do but wait. After a month or two, they phoned me in Hoedspruit, where I was living at the time. They were missing some forms. I’d have to come in and submit those. In fact, what was lacking was a copy of my old passport, which I clearly remember including with the application. Dutifully, the next time I visited Jo’burg, I went in and resubmitted the form. I promptly forgot about the whole thing until last month when I received a text message saying my passport was ready for pickup. Relieved to hear it, I could let the excessive duration of the procedure slide. When I phoned the passport office, however, I was informed that Home Affairs had in fact lost my application. Instead of picking up my passport, I would need to come and reapply. A multitude of emotions bubbled up inside me at that point. I explained to the woman that I now lived in Cape Town, after which she proceeded to ask me when I’d be coming down to Jo’burg for a weekend, and was stunned into silence to learn that I wouldn’t be. She didn’t seem to grasp the fact that Home Affairs, responsible for the mess-up, might want to be the one taking action to improve the situation.

I wonder how these people keep their jobs. And the fact that they do seems to emphasize the complete lack of accountability the South African government feels towards its citizens. Yet we as South Africans accept this.
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“That’s just the way it is,” is what the man in front of me said in the traffic department. We feel bad if we complain, we don’t want to look like the bad guy. But in the meantime, these bureaucratic agents run rampant over our rights and dignity. I’m asking myself, when will we stand up and declare that we’ve had enough?
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