Kevin Ritchie

When things work well in South Africa, they work exceptionally well. Government, too, actually - as much as many of us would like to believe otherwise.

The South African Revenue Service (Sars) is one, particularly under Pravin Gordhan’s stewardship when it was forged into one of the most feared tax inspectorates in the world, as well as the most incredibly efficient.

Sanral, our almost universal and unequivocal loathing of e-tolls notwithstanding, is another. The state of our roads is actually incredibly good when seen against roads in other countries - and not just Africa. There are highways between London and Portsmouth that are unbelievably potholed, likewise the road from John F Kennedy International Airport and Manhattan in New York.

But when they don't work, our government departments have to be among the worst, the most antediluvian, in the world. Home Affairs is a perfect case in point.

Once you successfully traverse the sea of touts offering everything from black pens and spaza shop photo operators, you're faced with the prospect of interminable queues - even when you're at a smart Home Affairs centre. This is one where you don’t need pix, you don’t need pens, you just need your fingerprints and a decent sense of humour, because everything’s captured. And, if it isn’t captured because you're under 16 and don’t have an ID card, you just need your birth certificate and your parent - both, if you're trying to get a passport.

If you've got that, plus the obligatory fee in cash, once you're in the building and into the system it is a modern digital marvel, complete with reassuring SMSes to the cellphone in your pocket, announcing the various checkpoints you've passed from registering your application to alerting when to pick up the documents you’ve requested.

But, even if it works, there are still queues, unintelligible to the uninitiated.

There’s the 90-minute queue to get into the building, the obligatory buttock shuffle on the bent aluminium Department of Public Works seat/benches. To meet the "greeter".

When you meet the greeter, you get captured into the system, issued a number and then join the tail of another queue snaking back out of the building, with people now waiting for their digital pix and fingerprints.

And, when you've got that, there's another queue to pay and then a final silver bum shuffle to check your fingerprints and digitally capture your signature.

But it's when the system doesn't work that that you enter a whole different ballgame, a bureaucratic Heart of Darkness, that's inscrutable in its insensitivity. Like waiting in the first queue for the usual 90 minutes to get inside to do inch buttock by buttock to the greeter, only to be told the scanner doesn't work and they're still waiting for parts to have it fixed.

Or the queue just doesn't move at all until someone in the queue has the gumption to ask the private security guard, who ventures into the belly of the beast to emerge to announce down the line, like an open secret, that computers are down. And everyone stands, doubting, wondering, waiting for a miracle, unsure whether to write off the hour(s) they might have already wasted, until the doubting Thomases start peeling off, until only the die-hards are left and then even they leave because the system is resolute in its determination to stay offline.

Or there's the time you decide to be clever and phone to find out if the closing times on the website are correct (it’s officially 4pm), and the voice tells you not to come because they close the gates at 3.30pm every afternoon - even though the system is working and the queues are manageable.

Finally, one day, you go there with a flask of coffee, a book and packet of biscuits. You might even have taken the day off, rather than trying to skive a couple of hours off work.

The omens are good. You arrive early, everyone smiles, everything works. The queues are the usual mish-mash of South Africans, facing their wait with the unique equanimity of voters, with the odd red-faced anguish of the newbie unused to queues that move with a life all of their own, who stamps her feet and harrumphs and flicks her hair, until you - who are white yourself - think "eish, white privilege" and click your tongue in your head.

Because you're a veteran by now; duly prepared, you're only actually in the building for four hours, emerging with a satisfactory SMS confirming your application, and the world feels fine.

But that feeling is nothing compared to the next SMS a fortnight later asking you to pick up your documents.

You arrive, whistle through in less than an hour and emerge with your brand new biometric passport and cute ID card, with all their safety features - the equal in design (if not access) to any other passport or national ID card anywhere else in the world, if not even better. For a moment, all your woes are forgotten - but not so deeply repressed that you don't make damn sure you take proper care of them to prevent having to return to replace them.

And you wonder, with all the money, all the world-class tech, why do you have to queue to meet the greeter? Couldn't Home Affairs afford an extra one to stand outside?

* Kevin Ritchie is the Regional Executive Editor - Gauteng