I arrive at the Traffic Department. The door is open and a queue has already formed ahead of the start of business at 9 o’clock. I scan the display of forms to find the one I need to renew my driver’s licence. It is fortunate that I brought my own pen for I find a seat in the queue and fill in the form, pressing on my knee. It is not that easy to see what is required as the form is dark and smudged in places having been photocopied many times on dark green paper.
A young woman enters, surveys the sixteen chairs, all occupied, and barks a query to the room as a whole, wanting to know where the start of the queue is. Pulling a face, she stomps into the Eye Test Room and disappears from view. It is then that I see a large typed notice directing applicants to proceed to this room before getting their applications processed.
My form filled in, I spy a spare chair in the next room and slip into that. I strike up a conversation with the man sitting in the other one. There is no sign of Bossy Boots.
A uniformed official checks our application forms and disappears. We hear angry murmurings in the eye-testing cubicle next door followed by a raised “it’s my ex-husband. That’s complicated!” Bossy Boots storms out while turning the air blue – she would never be allowed on a family show! Not a good start, I think as my companion moves into the vacated cubicle. I am left alone to contemplate the dark blue, heavily stained carpet; canary yellow brick walls thick with dust clinging to the uneven surfaces; the once white partition wall in front of me is sagging, cracked and splotched where the paint has peeled off.
My forms are scrutinised once more and I am told to provide proof that I reside at the given residential address.
I stand on the pavement outside while waiting for my lift – silly me, I have left my phone at home.
I fill in a proof of residence form at the Councillor’s Support Office. It is signed and stamped for me in less than a minute.
I cheerfully re-enter the Eye Testing Room, having waved to some of the applicants in the queue who have moved along the chairs since I left. I hand over my proof of address and application forms still with a smile on my face. The official shakes his grizzled head and disappears. He returns. “This is not acceptable,” he says ruefully. I tell him I had been told this would be sufficient. “They do their own thing there,” he responded and wearily explained that I have to produce a utility bill. I later discovered that he had been repeating himself for days – ever since this requirement became law on 1st November – stressing that the bill could only be from the Municipality, Telkom or Eskom. “I don’t have such a thing.” My cheerfulness is immediately dampened – why does the government make life so difficult for those who have no accounts in their lives? What follows is a laboured explanation of how I can use my landlord’s utility bill – “I live with my husband” I venture in an effort to stem the tide. He mistakenly thinks the man sitting next to me is my spouse and begins to explain to him how he would have to write an affidavit confirming my residency with him and get this signed by a Commissioner of Oaths. “He is not my husband,” I explain, enjoying the bemused smile on my companion’s face, and enquire whether it would be possible to take the eye-test and then get the proof he requires before re-joining the long queue for the next part of the process. He shakes his head firmly.
I return for round three to weary smiles and nods from the now readily recognisable faces of erstwhile strangers still in the queue – having moved up one chair at a time. There is not a soul in either the waiting room or the eye-testing cubicle. Various women walk in and out of a room behind me to use the cranky photocopier shoved against the wall. None of them know – or seem to care – where the eye-tester is. More applicants enter and have to stand as the chairs are occupied.
Our papers are checked by an official. My stamped affidavit is acceptable and I am ushered into the still empty eye-testing cubicle.
I hear a heavy tread and a sigh as a large man shuffles in and sits down on a swivel chair that saw its better days in the previous century. He looks at me impassively and I meekly hand over my application forms, affidavit, my husband’s utility bill, my ID card and driver’s licence card. I place first my left thumb on the electronic scanner and then the right. I obediently sign my name on the other electronic scanner. The eye testing begins. I pass. My photograph is taken. “Were my eyes closed?” I wasn’t expecting the bright flash of light in that dingy room. He obligingly turns the computer screen towards me (they are still using Windows XP I noticed earlier) so that I can see my “twin” as he calls my image with a weary smile that does not reach his rheumy eyes.
I re-join the queue from the back and move from chair to chair as the one next to me becomes vacant. Several people have also been here since 9 o’clock. Many have also been sent off to either have photographs taken or to get a utility bill. Complete strangers, we are in this together. Everyone is confused about the new requirements, but the officials remain firm. One answered an irate query with the words, “I know this seems ridiculous, but it’s the law.”
I am number two in the queue!
A woman in the row of chairs behind me demands to see “someone in charge” so that she can protest to someone in authority about only one window operating. A low murmur of agreement ripples through the two rows of chairs and reaches those standing at the door.
A second window opens for business. The man ahead of me waves me to it, saying he needs to do his transactions at the first window (how does he know that?).
The woman behind the counter asks a colleague to fill her water bottle. Only on its return does she look directly at me. I am being attended to! I hand over my application forms to which are now stapled the required affidavit and a photocopy of the utility bill. She turns each page excruciatingly slowly and queries the initial on the utility bill as it is different from mine. I explain about the affidavit. She misses it twice as she thumbs through the forms. Third time lucky. I can almost feel the tension of expectation in the room behind me – everyone is hoping my business will be over quickly. I hand over a photograph and watch as it is affixed to the application form with two broad strips of clear tape which the woman thoroughly smooths over with her finger. I watch as she enters my particulars on her computer. I hear the whirr of a printer below the counter. I check that all my details are correct, sign the form and pay what is owed. “Come back in four to five weeks to fetch your licence card” I am told – not even the government departments trust the post office anymore. Meanwhile, I need a temporary driving permit – the eye-testing man deduced that immediately. She looks surprised that my licence is expired. More clacking of computer keys. Another photograph. More money.
I turn away clutching the temporary driving permit in my hand. I am met with smiles by the stalwarts still in the queue behind me. Their eyes are shining with hope that they will be able to conclude their business before lunch. I give them a cheerful wave and bid them all farewell.
I step into the sunshine once more. Mission accomplished!