I recently came across this line in a reader comment:
Good news: You no longer need to fill in a form. It’s all done online! Bad news: they were offline.
We were talking about the new South African travel guidelines which now require parents traveling with children to carry a long-form birth certificate with them, or they won’t be allowed to travel into or out of South Africa. This reader had gone to apply for said form, while also applying for a new passport, and was pleased to find out that you no longer needed to fill in a form (I think for the passport). It was now all done online! But alas, at the moment the system was offline!
This deadpan comment had me laughing so hard I choked on my coffee. Those two little sentences, like nothing else, epitomize the South African bureaucrazy I so came to loathe during our three expat years. (And yeah, I made a typo, but then decided to leave it, because crazy, right?)
And which, to be fair, gave me so much material to write about. Just search for “Eskom” on my blog and you’ll get the picture.
In a way, it’s typical of the developing world. Some cumbersome and old-fashioned technologies get leapfrogged and in some cases you get to mobile phones, phone banking, and online forms more quickly than elsewhere. I still miss the ease with which I conducted all our banking in South Africa, transferring funds via EFT without a hitch, and I can’t believe I’m back to writing physical checks again now that we’re back in the United States, where the checkbook-printing lobby must be uncannily powerful. I just mention that in the spirit of fairness.
But all this leapfrogging doesn’t help when there is no guarantee that the new technology actually works or is even understood, and more often than not you’re back to square one. I still remember the many trips it took for me to renew the license disk on my car, because at every post office I visited the system was down “at the moment.” At one of them, it had been down for over a year.
So, if you’re an expat new to South Africa, don’t get your hopes up at the promise of something being available online. It might very well float around the Internet somewhere, but if you can’t actually connect to it (or, I might add, only do so very slowly at about one megabit per second when you are, in fact, connected), it’s back to standing in line at the post office. Or the licensing department. Or Home Affairs. And we all know what that is like.
You’ll have to bring a really good book and some strong coffee to brave that.
By the way, I’d like to end this with another piece of good news: Those new South African travel guidelines requiring parents traveling with children to carry a long-form birth certificate with them starting October 2014? As seems to be the pattern with controversial new laws floated by the South African government, they have been postponed until June 2015, in the face of enormous pushback as well as an overwhelmed Home Affairs department (though, let’s face it, they are ALWAYS overwhelmed, aren’t they?). Anyway, everyone can breathe again. Until June at least.