Caledon Home Affairs: A touch of relative functionality in the countryside
While the Home Affairs office in Caledon is far from perfect — much like the hell affairs of many other offices in the country — it is possible to be helped within a morning without queueing before dawn, as long as the system is online. And if you time it right, you can walk right in. Daily Maverick readers also share their experiences.
There was no queue outside the grey and somewhat shabby Home Affairs office in Caledon at 2.30pm last Wednesday, as opposed to the block-long queues seen outside offices in Randburg, Johannesburg, Cape Town central and Mitchells Plain.
Inside, a polite security guard ushered me through the Covid protocols and asked what service I was seeking. The system was online and an application for a smart ID card could be processed.
Having come in shortly after me was Stellenbosch student Liam Quinlan wanting to update his passport, which was last issued when he was a minor. Stepping aside to let him proceed, I explained to the security guard that I was, in fact, a journalist wanting to see what the service in Caledon was like, having received a range of mixed comments from readers. I asked if it would be possible to speak to the supervisor.
A better option
Obligingly, he let the supervisor, Mark Williams, know I was there and Williams immediately came out to meet me. Unfortunately, he said he was not allowed to speak to the press, but had no problem with me observing operations.
There were nine people seated inside the office, with four staff at the front desks. Within 20 minutes, Quinlan had his passport updated and ready for his impending expedition on the SA Agulhas to conduct research on phytoplankton in the Antarctic for his marine geochemistry master’s thesis.
With the Home Affairs office in Stellenbosch having only 15% of its staff at work and unable to serve the hundreds of people queuing every day, Quinlan had taken the opportunity to pop into Caledon on his way home to Riviersonderend. He said his parents had told him it was a much better option than the Stellenbosch or Cape Town offices.
By 3.30pm, when the office closed for the day, the nine people who had been inside had been helped, but the security guard said Thursday and Friday mornings were the busiest times, and he expected about 20 people to be waiting when he opened the doors at eight the next morning.
Trips from Hawston
Arriving at 9.30am on Thursday, there was a queue of about two dozen people. One of them was Henry October from Hawston, who needed to replace his damaged ID. It was the second time he had made the trip to Caledon, having been there on Monday when, 20 minutes after his arrival just after 8am, it was announced that the system was offline and was unlikely to come back online that day.
The round trip costs him R70, but he pointed to a minibus taxi organised by Home Affairs that had brought people from Hawston free of charge. It was organised via a Facebook group, he said, but he was unaware it was operating as he didn’t have data for Facebook.
Mobile unit for collections
During the course of the morning, the minibus did another trip, bringing 15 more people to join the queue at 10.30am. These were people collecting their documents and a mobile unit in the parking lot was opened to assist them.
This caused grumbling among some near the front of the queue who had been waiting for about an hour as things seemed to have stalled, particularly after initial confusion over whether all collections were being done at the mobile unit, as well as people not from Hawston being sent back to wait outside the main office.
Staff members at the mobile unit said the unit was supposed to travel to Hawston. A driver had been appointed to start on 1 July, but in the interim, a bus to bring people to Caledon had been organised.
Frustration peaked at about 11am as neither the collections nor applications queue outside the office had moved for about an hour.
Among those complaining was a middle-aged man who said he’d come early on Monday, but the system went down just as he put his thumb on the fingerprint reader. This prompted others to joke that they hoped they got in ahead of him considering he had such a bad effect on the system.
Another man in his 60s, upset over the wait, said he was there to collect his ID and passport after having applied on Wednesday last week.
Lizette Nieuwenhuyzen, who runs Oceans Media in Hermanus, had arrived at 9am and was at the front of the applications queue after the group of people ahead of her had been let in at 9.30am. Nieuwenhuyzen said it was her third attempt this year to get an ID card for her 17-year-old son, who needed it to write his school exams, and to get her daughter’s surname changed. She had tried twice last year without success.
She said that in January she had queued for three-and-a-half hours but the queue didn’t move as the system was offline. She was one of eight or nine people from Hermanus who returned home without being helped that day.
She said the second time, “about two months ago”, she had come with a friend who needed to collect her passport, and was helped within 30 minutes, but the line she was in for ID applications saw only two people go through the doors in three hours.
The online booking process didn’t help, she said, as she never received a day or time to come to Home Affairs, but only a message saying her booking would expire in 120 days.
“As a business owner, it’s a hell of a thing to close your business three times in a year… luckily I have very understanding clients.”
She and nine other people, including October, were let through the door at 11.55am. She emerged at 1pm, having successfully applied for her son’s ID, but was frustrated at being told the necessary consent documents needed to be certified, a condition not stipulated on the Home Affairs website. She said she’d have to come back another day.
Head office a ‘black hole’
A Home Affairs staff member, whose name is withheld as they are not allowed to speak to the media, expressed frustration with head office in Pretoria, whose archives were “a black hole”.
The biggest problem, they said, was with unabridged birth, death and marriage certificates, which staff in Pretoria had to access. Most of these were yet to be digitised and often the required certificate could not be located, or was damaged.
Obtaining one “takes days to years”, they said, and there were massive backlogs. There was a backlog of 400 such applications in Caledon, they said. “In the metro offices, it must be thousands.”
Downtime was often due to the South African Information Technology Agency systems going offline, in which case it was a nationwide or province-wide problem, although sometimes only the local system was down due to cable theft. Additionally, there was no generator at the Caledon office, leaving it at the mercy of Eskom’s load shedding.
Spread the load
Pretoria should also devolve some functions to local offices, such as “booking out” a passport. They explained that when a passport needed to be renewed, if the expired passport was on the “old system”, it needed to be located and “booked out”. At present, this could only be done at the Pretoria head office — where officials did not answer their phones. There was no good reason, they said, why this could not be done on the system at local offices.
Additionally, the Caledon office was about 50% understaffed and had no dedicated cashier, resulting in all staff having to do multiple jobs, including dealing with payments.
The quickest and easiest way to minimise corruption in the department, they said, was to ensure every office had a dedicated cashier dealing with payments.
Appreciative of being asked about working conditions, they said dealing with continual complaints from clients was “very stressful” and that they were having to take medication for anxiety.
Wellness was something the department talked about, but no interventions took place. No one at head office seemed to care, they said. DM
Feedback from readers on the Caledon Home Affairs office
“Passport renewal impossible in Cape Town or Wynberg or Somerset West. Drove 115km to Caledon, excellent friendly service. Staff friendly and helpful.”
“Arrived at Caledon and joined the 30-person queue for passport and ID photos. Took them the entire day to process us because the system kept on ‘crashing’ periodically. 50% staff capacity that day.”
“There were no issues. It was some time ago but my daughter went there quite recently and the service was not bad, she went to register my first granddaughter.”
“Visited both Caledon and Grabouw offices in an attempt to get just biometrics taken of minor child, both offices offline and staff staring at blank computer screens, no communication.”
“Three visits and could write a book, e.g. holdup due to prisoners getting IDs! Biggest problems were the deadly slow and on/offline computers. Also a bit confused about the role the security guards perform.”
“Went to Caledon for passport renewal. Staff helpful but very unfriendly. Arrived at 13.00 and waited until 14.45 to be helped. After lunch, only one staff member was on duty to process passports and ID.”
“Wow, 200 words is not enough to verbalise the abuse at Caledon office. Queued 09:30 to 18:30. Son applied for his first ID, was told I needed to return with him and my wife the following day? Refused.”
“Not too bad at Caledon, W Cape. There is enough parking nearby, plenty of chairs when you’re inside and the officials are quite pleasant. And the women’s bathroom is acceptably clean.”
“My passport expired during a recent visit to Cape Town. After queuing for four hours I was told they needed to contact HQ as it was issued abroad and they would call me. I never received the call.”
“We went to collect my ID card and to apply for passport renewal. The system kept going on and off. There was no logic to the order in which we were called. I would slit my wrists if I had to work there.”
“Unspeakably dreadful. Gave up in Wynberg. Went to Caledon, queued in the baking sun for 6-7 hrs then gave up. Returned to Grabouw a few weeks later, got there 6am, 20th in the queue, finally served at 11.”
“They were so much more efficient than the others. There was someone guiding the queues and I probably waited only 30 minutes after they opened before being helped.” DM