Rebuilding Foundations

An exploration of international development work in Africa

Visa Saga

The Department of Home Affairs is the South African government sector that deals with passports, visas, and other various residency documents.  Previously, they had a reputation for inefficiency and sluggishness.  In the recent years, however, the ANC have dedicated a significant amount of resources to the Department and, consequently, service has improved.

Or so I’ve been told.  My experience with the visa office makes me think that it must been completely ineffective 5 years ago since it’s still pretty bad right now.

My original South African visitor’s visa was valid for six months until February 18.  In January I scrambled to get all my documentation together from Rooftops Canada and Madulammoho for a four month extension until June 10.  I knew I had to hand my application in 30 days before my original visa expired: after many frantic emails to my host organization and much unnecessary stress, I finally handed everything in to the Department of Home Affairs on January 17.

And it only took 3 hours of waiting in line!

The Johannesburg Department of Home Affairs building is in the inner city, beside the Bree Taxi Rank.  It’s a hectic area, to say the least.  There’s a short line up to get inside as people put their bags through the security scanner and walk under the metal detector.  As you wait, hawkers offer to take your passport photo or sell you a black pen: “There are no pens in the building,” they say.  “And they only accept black, not blue.”

Once inside, I took the six flights of stairs up to the floor for permanent residence and visa applications.  I asked the lady at the information counter where to go, she checked to make sure I had all necessary paperwork since they refuse to provide any forms whatsoever, then she pointed to the door to my left.  I entered and was handed a slip of paper with the date printed on it.

Inside were three columns of rows of wooden benches.  I asked the man who handed me the paper where to go, and he waved his hand vaguely in the direction of the benches.

I approached the first set of benches and asked what they were waiting for.  A woman told me that I wanted the next column.  I walked forward and asked again.  Yes, this was the right line.  But where was the end of it?  Someone told me to stand beside the last bench, so I did.  Whenever someone was called forward by the tellers at the front, everyone would shift one person’s width down the benches.  Sometimes a whole family would be called up and, excitedly, we’d all move half a bench in one go!

It was a long wait on a Friday morning.  By 10am the room was hot and stuffy.  I wished that I’d brought a book or drunken less tea in the morning.  A group of three women opened a big bag of Doritos on the bench behind me and the whole room listened to them crunch on chips as noon came and went.

The man beside me started chatting to me, which helped to pass the time.  He was a Nigerian who had lived in South Africa for seven years and was applying for his permanent residency.  He told me he really wanted to work for the UN and asked if I had any contacts for a position like that.  I answered that unfortunately I didn’t.  He asked me about myself as well and then asked for my email address.

I hate it when strangers ask for my contact information like that.  I knew he wasn’t hitting on me since his wife was sitting beside him, sometimes adding her own side to his stories.  But the suspicious, wary part of me doesn’t like giving out my personal information – even something as silly as an email address!  Does he want something from me?  Does he think that I can help him?

He saw my hesitation and laughed.  “I just want to be friends,” he said.

I’ve had enough “friends” conversations in my life – mostly with men – to know that the definition of friendship varies widely from one person to another.  Regardless, I put aside my natural western distrust and gave him my email address.  He never emailed me, though, so all my apprehension was for naught.

Eventually I made it to the front of the line and handed in my application.  The woman told it would take four to six weeks to process my new visa.  Then I went to another counter to pay the application fee.  I asked the man exactly what I needed to do now and he told me to wait for an SMS (text message).

Once I got home, I put my visa receipt in a drawer and promptly forgot about it.

Fast forward two months.  It’s mid-March and I suddenly realized that my friend is coming to visit from Canada and we’d planned on going to Lesotho and Mozambique, but my visa had expired.  I fished out my receipt and read over the instructions.  I was supposed to call within 30 days of handing in my application!  Oops… missed that one.

On the morning of Thursday March 14 I finally phoned the Department of Home Affairs and was given a reference number and a promise that I’d be called back within 24 hours.  I called again Friday afternoon.  And again on Saturday.  The office is closed on Sunday, so I didn’t bother.  On Monday I phoned again, getting slightly more stressed since we were planning on leaving Joburg on Wednesday.  The woman apologized and told me the system had been down for two days.  She said she’d flagged my inquiry and promised that someone would get back to me by the end of the day.

Tuesday morning I phoned once again.  As well as Tuesday afternoon.  During the second phone call I got in an argument with the representative who told me the records showed that I’d already called a number times and that I should wait for them to call me.

“I was told that I would be phoned within 24 hours of my original inquiry.  I was promised someone would phone me yesterday, but I still haven’t received a response.  No one has been able to give me any information regarding my visa whatsoever.  I handed in my application two months ago and was told it would take four to six weeks to process.  I am going to continue phoning until someone is at least able to tell me something useful, like the status of my application.  Do you understand?”

“Ma’am, there is no point in phoning us unless we phone you.”

“But I keep getting assurances that I will be contacted, and then I’m not.  Do you understand why I keep phoning back and why I will continue?”

The man was obviously annoyed with me, as I was with him.  “Do not phone back.”

“I will phone again tomorrow morning if no one contacts me.”

And then I hung up, angry and frustrated.

In the end, we left for the Drakensberg mountains without my visa.  Our original plan was to head south to the Drakensberg for a few days of hiking, drive east to Durban, then drive north along the coast to Mozambique.  Instead, after Durban we drove the six hours back to Joburg to pick up my visa.

Which apparently still wasn’t ready.  The morning we arrived in Durban, I finally got ahold of a representative who was helpful.  She told me that my visa application still hadn’t been processed and that it took 30 to 90 business days.  I asked her if there was any way I could leave the country while I was still waiting and she told me that I might be able to get a letter from Johannesburg Department of Home Affairs.

Later that day, someone finally phoned me back from my original inquiry two weeks previously!  All she could tell me was that my visa wasn’t processed, but she couldn’t confirm whether I could get a letter from the Home Affairs office or not.

The next day, my friend and I got back in our car for the long drive back to Joburg.  The following morning, I was lined up outside the office at 7am for its 7:30am opening time.  Inside, I waited in line to talk the representative at the Information counter.  She told me that they didn’t give letters, but she checked my visa number in her computer and – lo and behold – my visa was ready after all!

Inside, I handed in my passport and once again waited on the wooden benches – this time in the first column.  After half an hour I finally got my new visa!  When I opened up my passport, however, disappointment flooded through me.  They’d gotten the date wrong!  My visa was only valid until May 15, a month before my plane tickets to leave.

I asked the Information lady what I should do and she told me to write a letter and hand in all my documentation again.  More bureaucracy and waiting.

I would like to say that I was frustrated, but honestly I wasn’t.  Instead, I started laughing.  The incompetence of the Department of Home Affairs no longer surprises me and I was just happy that I’d be able to go to Mozambique after all.

Now I have another 1.5 months to get my visa corrected before it expires and I’m once again an illegal alien.

Prediction:  In June, I’m going to have to pay the R1000 fine that they charge you when you leave this country on an expired visa.


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