Gang banging at Home Affairs

I can’t get out of Cape Town because I am wrapped in an electric blanket which is plugged into a 30m extension cord. It’s the only way I can leave the bed and get to the beer in the fridge without hypothermia setting in. I’m hoping the weather will warm up enough for me to make a run for the airport. I need to get closer to the equator.

I know someone who knows someone who has a house in Mozambique and I’m thinking of holing up there for the rest of winter. If nights turn nippy, I shall toss a fresh poacher on the fire and open another bottle of Tipo Tinto rum.

I must be one of the few white South Africans crazy enough not to be in possession of a valid passport. Much like me, my instincts for self-preservation could do with some work. The prospect of having to go to home affairs sent rivulets of fear trickling from my pores, shorting my electric blanket and shocking my ass. It wasn’t the first time my ass had been shocked. The things it has seen. But let’s not getting into that now.

The nearest home affairs office was in Wynberg. Only in the Western Cape would you find a suburb  called Wine Mountain. It’s gone now, of course. But many of the locals still show signs of having contributed towards flattening that particular mountain.

I was surprised to see that the department had modernised its operations. In the old days, you would have to use a machete to hack your way through mobs of screaming Somalis and bribe-hungry freelancers. Now, you are given a number. Home affairs has become one of the numbers gangs. I joined the 1 028s. We kill time.

I was relieved to see that the personnel hadn’t been upgraded. We South Africans can’t take too much change all at once. Home affairs staff still have all the charm and charisma of your basic agricultural implement.

The seats were stainless steel. The message was clear. Don’t make yourself comfortable. This is not the Ecuadorean embassy and you’re not Julian Assange.

The countdown began. I had 45 shifty-eyed desperadoes in front of me. Some failed to report when their numbers were called. Are there people out there who go to home affairs, take a number and then go back home? As far as initiation rituals go, that’s pretty damn hardcore.

There wasn’t much to look at. Posters saying do this, notices saying don’t do that. Suicide notes scribbled in Swahili. And, on the wall, four big photographs in frames edged with guilt. I recognised Jacob Zuma and Kgalema Motlanthe, but not the other two. Friends or family, I suppose.

Eventually my number was called. I pulled my jeans low and sauntered up to the counter.

“Yo,” I said. “I be representin’ the 1028 massive.” I pushed my form across the counter and folded my arms. The clerk had wires coming out of the back of her head and an SABS stamp on her forehead. Her upper lip twitched. She glanced at my form, then shoved it back to me. Her index finger stabbed at a section I had missed. She made some kind of metallic hissing noise. She sounded a bit like my electric blanket.

The section asked if I had ever held citizenship of another country. Sure, I had. But not a real country. Not like Spain or America. I had been a citizen of Namibia a long time ago. I don’t know what came over me, but I ticked the “Yes” box.

This was met with a rattling sigh and a shaking of the head. I mentally smacked myself across my stupid truth-telling face. “You were a citizen of another country?” She looked at me as if I were personally responsible for the genocide in Rwanda.

I started to explain. “Comrade,” I said, “Namibia was a South African possession.” That was my second mistake. Her training had clearly failed to include certain elements of history, but she recognised words like possession. Drugs can be in your possession. You can be possessed by the devil. It’s a bad word in the lexicon of the law.

Her eyes narrowed and she tilted her head to one side, like a sniffer dog.

“Here’s the thing,” I said. “I took Namibian citizenship at independence because you weren’t allowed to hold both. I was born and raised in Durban. I only went to Namibia to help free it from the clutches of the apartheid regime. I got my South African citizenship back in 1996.” I had my expired passport in one hand and my ID book in the other. I held them up, stupidly thinking that would be proof enough of which country I belonged to.

Unmoved by my contribution to liberating Africa’s last colony, she said, “Where is your letter?” Apparently home affairs gave me a letter seventeen years ago. I explained that I had lived at 38 different addresses since then, and that I lost important documents on a weekly basis.

The only thing I had done wrong was to tell the truth on the form. “I should be awarded the Order of the goddamn Baobab!” I shouted, banging my fist on the counter. “If it weren’t for me, we’d all be speaking Russian today. I am a citizen of this filthy country and I demand that you …” She looked at a camera mounted on the ceiling and nodded. I grabbed my passport back and ran away.

Twenty minutes later, I was inside the home affairs office in central Cape Town. I joined another numbers gang. This time, the 2 327s. I wanted to kill a lot more than time.

“Go into the main hall and wait,” said a man with the social skills of a combine harvester. If there was a sign saying, “Main Hall”, it must have been written on a postage stamp and stuck on a piece of chewing gum underneath his table. I bent down and had a look. Nope. Just the chewing gum. “And the Main Hall is where exactly?” A look of irritation crossed his face. It might equally have been a look of unrequited love. Or hunger. Or wind. I expect he only had one look. He also only had one method of dispensing directions. A jerk of the head. Hand signals probably required additional training. Perhaps he had signed up for the course and was waiting for his number to be called. He jerked his head to the left a couple of times. But then he jerked it to the right. I wasn’t sure if he was over-correcting or had Parkinson’s. I jerked my head to the left, he shook his. He jerked his head to the right, I nodded. We were developing quite a rapport.

The car guards, the crying babies, the Chinese immigrants. They were all there, sitting on their stainless steel chairs, waiting patiently like extras in a movie called Dashed Expectations.

I was an older, wiser man by the time my number came up. I lied on my form, paid my money, had my fingerprints taken and got the hell out of there. The truth? Don’t bother. Home affairs can’t handle the truth.