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Apr 29, 2011

Home Affairs and its backlogs

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George Eliot is accredited with posing the question: What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult for each other. It appears that someone at the Department Home Affairs missed the ‘George Eliot Day’ during their studies.

Amid considerable fanfare, it was announced recently that the backlog for permit applications had been cleared, a story that the media carried repeatedly, to the considerable delight of many a frustrated expat waiting for his or her permit. When more than one attorney subsequently pointed out to the department that this was not exactly correct, officials directed their attention, ironically, to the ‘small print’ of the full media release. Buried in the detail was the advisory note that people should not start hassling the department for their permits before 20 April, to allow the department time to get the permits from Pretoria to Johannesburg and for administrative matters to be attended to. What is it that takes three weeks to be done once the application has been adjudicated, and how long does it take a courier to travel from Pretoria to Johannesburg, even in rush-hour traffic? Surely, the department could have timed its announcement better. It could even have corrected those apparently misleading media reports.

But that small print tells a very different story. Firstly, as far as the client base is concerned, the backlog has not been cleared. It makes no difference to the customer that his or her permit has been ‘adjudicated’ somewhere in Pretoria if it is not in his or her passport. Secondly, advising people not to contact the call centre before April 20 implies that there will, in fact, be applications that will not have been finalised by that date.

That many permit applicants are going to be frustrated is inevitable. The story is told, for example, that, during March, Department of Home Affairs head office officials descended on the Johannesburg regional office and collected many applications that had been lying there without being sent on to Pretoria. These were removed without allocating ‘track and trace’ numbers to the individual files. As a result, attorneys cannot track their clients’ applications. And attorneys active in the field report that they are still being called and told to send duplicates of their applications because the paperwork has been lost by the department.

In one matter, where the attorney was try- ing to track his client’s file, there was an exchange with the call centre that could have been scripted by Franz Kafka. Head office had already twice asked for a copy of the application to be faxed through, which had been done. Then, while trying to track its further progress, the attorney was told that Johannesburg had not recorded that the file had left Johannesburg and, until Johannesburg did so, the file was not in Pretoria, even if it was in Pretoria, and the call centre would not answer questions about the application until that happened!

But there is another side, and a very cynical component, to this so-called purging of the backlog. Under pressure to clear the backlog, attorneys are reporting that little short of shocking and irrational decisions are being taken, with applications being refused for farcical and arbitrary reasons. In that way, even if the application then has to return to the department by way of an appeal, it is no longer part of the backlog.

The same thing happened several years ago, when there was a huge backlog of permanent residence applications and also when there was a backlog of refugee applications. This is not clearing the backlog – it merely creates a new one and people are still kept waiting, much to the increasing frustration of the customer and other interested parties, such as employers. It is possibly too much to hope that Home Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma or her director- general, Mkhuseli Apleni, reads Eliot during their spare time.

It is noteworthy that the Department of Home Affairs was not asked to comment on the arrival of Radovan Krejcir’s mother at OR Tambo International Airport recently. According to media reports, an ‘anonymous’ security official claimed that airport officials had been ‘duped’ by Mrs Krejcirova having had the gall to arrive on her own passport and without a disguise (presumably her Klingon costume was at the dry cleaners). In doing so, it was claimed that security officials, with all their training for and experience of the 2010 soccer World Cup, and so on, had apparently been sold a dummy; perhaps, one of the oldest tricks in the book – whether its chess pieces, football players or contraband you are moving! Personally, I think someone forgot to take his or her antiparanaoia medication.

Edited by: Martin Zhuwakinyu
Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor
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