When VFS was first appointed as the middleman to facilitate visa applications for the Department of Home Affairs, the company, and the department, had a pretty bad reputation. Having just gone through the experience of a visa renewal with someone, there might be light at the end of the tunnel.
Almost two years ago, my British partner and I did his first visa application which would allow him to settle with me in South Africa. Out-of-country love affairs and the inevitable visa processes that follow are still not something I’d recommend for fun, but they are part of people’s lives all across the globe.
These processes can be incredibly stressful for varying reasons. Even if you are completely sure that you have done everything exactly as you were asked to do, there is always a sense of panic that something was missed or went missing and your entire life can be turned upside down by a piece of paper.
Needless to say, as renewal time came creeping ever closer for my partner, so did the sheer horror that goes alongside reading too many things about visa applications on the internet.
VFS, the application centre that now helps to facilitate all temporary and permanent residency matters in South Africa, had a pretty bad reputation when they were first appointed as guardians for the process. Many applicants reported that the processing time for their visas had increased while others said they were given the wrong information by the call centre and had to go back and do everything all over again, while waiting for a refund to be processed.
Adding VFS as a middle man also doesn’t eliminate the Department of Home Affairs from the process. They are still the ones making the eventual calls and considering the love-hate relationship most South Africans have with DHA, this doesn’t exactly fill one with confidence.
Many people have had only good experiences and the department seems to be making a genuine effort to ramp up its service. You can now apply for your Smart ID card online or at a bank. Then there are the bad stories. We’ve all heard about somebody who was declared dead, married, given a different name or a different photo for their ID or some other absurd administrative cock up by the department. Chances are if you’ve ever spent time in a DHA queue, you’ve met one of these people.
The combination of all of these factors is enough to make you stress-vomit in your mouth every time you even think about the visa process that beckons. But, needs must.
It took about two months to gather everything – ranging from police clearances to other delights such as notarial agreements and radiological reports. We never used a lawyer or an immigration firm as a lot of the “dirty” work is simply getting stuff together as per a checklist provided by VFS.
We submitted the application in Cape Town in the duly required 60 days prior to expiry of his current visa. We were told the process could take up to eight weeks. Imagine my sheer surprise and utter joy to discover that my partner’s visa was adjudicated within two weeks since submission.
As I popped in to the immigration forums, I noted that a few other people had noted similar positive timelines. Somebody else had received their permanent residence application outcome in just two months – an unheard of time frame for something that often takes up to a year.
Needless to say, many of us automatically assumed the worst at such efficiency. But lo and behold, my partner’s visa was granted and barring what seems like a minor clerical error which should be easily rectified, the process was entirely painless and professional.
I am fully aware of the privilege that allowed us to complete the application as thoroughly as we did. Not everyone applying for a visa has flexible working hours or a boss that will allow them time to jump through all these hoops. Not everyone has R1,350 just sitting around for the “handling fee”. Not everyone has constant access to a computer and the internet – which is required to fill in the online application from. Not everyone can afford several calls to the very efficient VFS call centre when they have a question. Refugees and asylum seekers are particularly vulnerable and just this August, GroundUp ran a story about Zimbabweans stuck in limbo awaiting Zimbabwe Special Dispensation Permits. One person’s positive experience means diddly squat for those who are still fighting bureaucracy.
But, considering how often South Africans (especially those of the privileged disposition) complain about incompetency, we far too often gloss over the things that work as they are supposed to. And maybe, just maybe, things might be slowly improving. We can only hope. DM
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