Maverick Citizen


Road to Nowhere — a day in a Hell Affairs queue

Road to Nowhere — a day in a Hell Affairs queue
The 7am queue at Home Affairs in Randburg. (Photo: Mark Heywood)

South Africa has illusions of grandeur about being a modern, competitive country. A day or two or three in a queue at a Home Affairs office in Johannesburg should quickly (well, slowly) disabuse you of that notion. This is a story written while waiting in one of those lines.

Winter is coming. The mornings are darker and colder. Nonetheless, by the time you arrive at Home Affairs at 7am, the queue is already a hundred people long. You can see on their faces that they are in for a long day. Grim determination.

Before the gates open at 8am, an official sends a Covid-19 form down the queue. Fill in your ID number, say whether you have any symptoms and so on. You know the drill. Unfortunately, it’s about the most efficient thing that will happen to you for the next six hours. Except that it’s completely unnecessary. Like Covid fogging. Even though Home Affairs is “run” by a doctor, they didn’t get the message or the prescription. 

Or maybe it’s because the department is run by a doctor. 

home affairs hell service president's men

All the Presidents Men: The deployees we should hold responsible for dysfunction and corruption in the Home Affairs Department. (Photo: Mark Heywood)

After that, there’s no communication, no numbering system (until you get through the door, which is many hours away). Just the hum of people quietly chatting.

Some people seem to get quicker access than others. Word passes back along the queue that “they have online bookings”. But you can’t make online bookings — it doesn’t work, says one of my new queue friends. 

“Most likely a backhander somewhere,” says another. 

home affairs seven hours

After seven hours: Inside at last, inside at last, thank God Almighty we are inside at last. (Photo: Mark Heywood)

So most continue to queue in patient resignation, joking darkly about “the nightmare”. The experience adds to the cynicism and distrust of government. For all it claims, it’s not a government that cares. Batho Pele’s in the bin. But there’s no choice. You need that document. Your life and ability to function or travel depend on it. 

A stunning reversal after KZN floods — the ANC now guilty until proven innocent

Some clever people bring camp chairs and lunch boxes. They must have friends in low places who gave them advance warning. 

During the interminable hours, some drop by the wayside and give up. I know the feeling. I was here yesterday. After five hours I gave up too. It felt like dropping out of a marathon. A harried bureaucrat had told us early in the morning that the “system is down”, but after that — silence. It seems nobody knew or cared when it would be up again. 

home affairs sign

A sign outside the office. (Photo: Mark Heywood)

Some arrive, see the queue and disappear. 

I discovered, as I posted an SOS on Facebook, that there’s a science to finding a functional Home Affairs office. Some mention Alex. Some say Centurion. Others say take a drive to Randfontein. 

But the problem is, once you are in the queue, you’re stuck. Your mind plays tricks with you. Maybe, maybe, maybe… 

As you stand, sit, perch, you can understand why millions of people don’t have IDs. 

home affairs toilets

The toilets in a container at the Randburg office. (Photo: Mark Heywood)

And so, as my anger levels increase, I send a message to Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi (whose number I still have from his days as Minister of Health — I’m tempted to share it, but won’t):

“Hello Minister. I hope you are well. I just wanted to say that your home affairs offices are a disgrace. I have spent eight hours so far queuing to renew my passport in Randburg. I can see no reason why it should be as inefficient and contemptuous of people as this. And I hear it’s the same everywhere. It makes me wonder what you are doing as the Minister. Maybe you ought to queue yourself one day to experience what ordinary people do.”

Several hours later I was happy to get a reply. Explaining that he was ill with flu and in bed, the good doctor said:

“I am not sure whether you are asking for my help or you just wanted me to know what you think of me. I am aware of the problems at the Randburg office and have just suspended the manager there to rebuild the office.” 

Cold comfort for me and my queue buddies.

home affairs toilets inside

Inside the toilets at the Randburg Home Affairs Department. (Photo: Mark Heywood)

The only good thing I can say is that Home Affairs is a great leveller. In this queue are citizens with little kids, pensioners, people with big cars, people with no cars, all races, all ages. It’s where the nation meets. Everybody but politicians. 

I’m left to have a solitary conversation with myself about state failure. What’s so complicated about processing, producing and disbursing ID documents and passports? If we can’t succeed with something as simple as this, how can we run a sophisticated economy and state? 

As a friend pointed out, what’s to stop Home Affairs having secure online stations at their offices (like ATMs) where an applicant enters all their information so that they need less than two minutes with an official to verify their identity. 

Or why doesn’t Home Affairs introduce a user rating system for its branches? 

home affairs queue

People who queued all day, but didn’t cross the line. (Photo: Mark Heywood)

It’s at a coalface like this that you really understand the implications of State Capture, corruption and state neglect. 

I don’t blame the workers. After four hours, when I made it into the actual office, the officials were reasonably personable. It’s the system that fails them. If you starve your public service and public servants, this is what you get. 

Where’s the leadership, you might ask? 

The answer is MIA or being nasty and shifting blame to straw men like illegal immigrants

All the president’s men? But do the ministers give a fuck? I doubt it. They get their blue lights, their perks and their arse-licking officials. And like the rest of them, they don’t have to queue, use the public health system or send their children to government schools. DM/MC

This article was written entirely in a queue. Having arrived at 7am, I clocked out just before 3pm. In the end, it took three minutes at the counter. My passport application was complete. But my attempt to get a Smart ID was unsuccessful because naturalised citizens are not eligible for smart IDs. Can any reader explain a good reason for that?


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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Bryan Shepstone says:


  • Peter Doble says:

    It is the ultimate Catch22 for a country which thrives on implementing fruitless laws. You physically need all the original documents by law yet it is practically impossible to access them.
    Just another milepost in the road to absolute anarchy.

  • Rod Stewart says:

    In 1992, the ANC released a document entitled “Ready to Govern”. Right up there with Hansel & Gretel and Sleeping Beauty.

  • Tania Wallace says:

    Cape Town Home Affairs seemed to be even slower than Randburg, joined the queue at 4am, was in the doors around 10am and finished around 12 o’clock. This from about 20th in the queue outside where the queue runs down the road.

  • Hermann Funk says:

    Mark, thanks for expressing your frustration and disgust so openly. Home Affairs is just one example of governments general inefficiency. We all should have the direct numbers of all ministers to be able to make their lives hell. This would either lead to positive change or them leaving office.

  • Johan Fick says:

    Hey Mark I know the feeling from a series of visits to Sasolburg Home Affairs some 2 years ago. Still the same story of the system being down. Being a naturalised Zimbo I was also denied even applying for a smart ID. I have since effortlessly obtained my ID card by applying online and visiting the satelite office at Nedbank Lakeview branch. What a pleasure. Good luck.

    • Penelope Meyer says:

      How did you get this right? I tried to apply online and it told me this facility is only available to South Africans born in South Africa. I was born in Zimbabwe to South African parents, due to a stuff up with registering me when we arrived back in South Africa, I had to be naturalised. Now I have to put up with this despite the fact that I have lived here from the age of 5.

  • Roy Haines says:

    I went to Stellenbosch HA recently to collect my passport, being well over 60 I was allowed to be at the front of the very long queue. When I finally got into the building I said to the guy that was supposedly organizing the queue ‘Don’t I need to be on the list, so that they will know who’s next?, no he said ‘Just sit there’ Well that just didn’t work and only after the third attempt did he finally find the list. I sat and sat and then noticed that the one person giving out the passports disappeared. When I asked where she had gone, the reply was ‘lunch’. So we had to wait for her to come back before finally being attended to. I was there for a total of 3 hours for something that should have taken a few minutes. When I went to apply for my new passport, the lady behind the desk asked if I would like a new card ID whilst I was there. ‘Yes I said that would be great’, after entering my details into the computer she said sorry ‘I can’t issue a card ID as you weren’t born in SA! Now what sense does that make?

  • Jennifer Ward says:

    This really is such an important issue. It is world wide as well as local.

  • Marc Caldwell says:

    This article so accurately reflects my recent experience at eThekweni’s (seemingly only) traffic department branch at Stellawood Road (Durban). It is literally run by arrogant and bad-tempered security guards who, elsewhere, would be found running a concentration camp. There was almost a riot the day I was there; after the queue stood still for more than an hour. Utterly dysfunctional. And there are ‘agents’ charging those who want to jump the queue. This dehumanizing disease seems endemic in South Africa. Every government official should be forced to experience what their entities inflict on others. Visiting SARS, on the other hand, seems almost like entering a beauty parlor. I wonder why.

  • Dave Reynell says:

    It’s no easier renewing a South African passport in the United States. A son of mine works in California and forwarded all the necessary documents to the South African Embassy in Washington (this is where applications are sent). Four months later, not a word. No acknowledgement of receipt – nothing ! All systems normal.

  • Paul Hollick says:

    I have always said that the Government Ministers should be made to use the services they provide. For instance, no Government Minister should be allowed to see a private Doctor. They should have to use a Government clinic/hospital. They should also be made to queue for their own driver’s license and car license.
    Once they have done this, they will make sure that the service is better.

  • jairo.arrow says:

    Mark, this is brilliantly sad. The Minister couldn’t be bothered. Now the Census is down the drain; the Population Register washed down by KZN floods and the Business Register reduced to ready-to-tender-shelf-companies there is nothing statistically significant anymore except the Orange Uniform for the State Capturors.

  • Yvonne Riester says:

    My 19 year old son who was born in SA and grew up in SA cannot get a smart ID because I (his mother) was not born in SA (but naturalised). Is there any logic in this? We attempted to renew his South African passport in Randburg but on seeing the queue drove on to Bronkhorstspruit ( 120 km away). After queuing for 5 hours, we were told that the system is down and we drove back home to beat the rush hour traffic. Complete waste of a day.

  • Ritchie Morris says:

    Went into our nearest Home Affairs to renew my passport on a Friday. They suggested I get the new ID card at the same time. Filled in the forms, did finger prints, etc. Took about 40 minutes. Following week Thursday I got an SMS to come in and fetch my ID and Passport. Five days – WOW! Super efficient team. Friendly. Geeky Afrikaans chap in a bright wetlook shirt and purple tie babbling away in isiXhosa to customers – to everyone’s delight. The lady at the counter was very proud to announce when I complimented her – ‘we are one of the top 10 Home Affairs offices in the country’. Want to know where it is? Its in the southern Cape area – that’s all I will say. Its all about the Manager of that office making the system work and ensuring staff efficiency and service.

  • Jill Gribble says:

    Home Affairs is indeed a hell for every citizen. Hours and days in a queue are what one knows to expect. Consider the case of a transgender teenager who applied for a gender change and a name change nearly three years ago, so as to be able to get an ID when she turned sixteen. Visits to Home Affairs, correspondence, phone calls to ‘the right people’ have been made regularly. Now that she is nearly eighteen, the official verdict is that her documentation has been lost and that she has to re-apply. No ID means she couldn’t register for her Matric exams, she had no ID for covid vaccination, and a host of other complications. She has re-applied, but she is one of many transgender teenagers who have been treated similarly by Home Affairs. One parent was told by a Home Affairs official that transgender children were the result of bad parenting.

  • Michael Forsyth says:

    This is a hazard all the way around. I am an attorney and sometimes need to access Home Affairs for documents for clients such as having death certificates amended because Home Affairs have made a typo or two. Unless you have a fixer you are on a road to nowhere. Mt fixer was actually empoyed by a local funeral home. He knew the officials, organised queues and told people what forms to complete and where to stand. I didn’t have to pay him a cent.

  • Jill Tyson Tyson says:

    Having been in various Home Affairs offices over the years, some much better than others, I want to say that all the staff I have dealt with have been really helpful BUT the computer systems, filing systems and offices in general are a total disgrace. The staff obviously do not get the basic support that they need to do their jobs.

  • Tony Reilly says:

    Unfortunately Mark, you only represent a tiny percentage of the population…….the rest of the “voting cattle” seem to accept zero service as their lot and continue to vote ANC. Can it ever change ?

  • JULIE BARNES says:

    If you are lucky enough to be able to use the online facility through the participating banks, rather do that and save some of your sanity. Aside from the shockingly slow Home Affairs website, the whole process was quite quick and you can book your appointment time, so very little queue time at all.

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