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The hell of pointless bureaucracy: My hostile trip into driving licence renewal purgatory


Shapshak is editor-in-chief of and executive director of Scrolla.Africa

The only thing that really works at the Sandton Licensing and Testing Department is the queues. In an attempt to get a new driving licence for myself and register my new car, I discovered the joys of dealing with what can only be described as institutionalised dysfunction.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

After Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula trumpeted the “request-a-slot” initiative, I duly requested a slot and was sent a date and time for 21 September. Armed with all the paperwork and three credit cards – clearly in an effort to stop corruption – all I needed to do was submit my driving licence application, register some fingerprints and pay.

The first part of the process was easy. It took 15 minutes to queue, sit in front of a complex machine, which encased a laptop, fingerprint reader, eye-test goggles and a camera. The man who assisted me was helpful – we laughed when he told me the machines kept breaking down – and off I went to pay.

And entered the wasteful bureaucracy where hostile civil servants treat their customers with not only disdain but an almost constant cold-shoulder attitude whenever you asked any kind of (pressing) question. This is keeping the country’s economic heartland from functioning properly.

It started with the cashier queue. I entered a room where all the chairs were occupied by grumpy-looking civilians, and was pointed to a man in a green mask, standing against a room divider. By way of gestures, like the hand signals of prisoners who are forbidden to speak, I worked out I should stand next to the man who would be my companion for the next hour of purgatory.

I am no religious scholar, but I know enough of the classics, especially the depictions of Hell in Dante’s Inferno, and this was living proof of the hell of pointless bureaucracy. One of author Franz Kafka’s most famous books was about a man accused of a crime and never told what the crime was while going through a trial.

This was my first queue crime – and I was involved in a few more bizarre and pointless encounters with other petty tyrants behind counters – whose only power was to force people to sit and wait. The wait for the cashier was because the “system is down” – a phrase I heard four times and which clearly contributed to my long wait. I had always thought that the Department of Home Affairs was the nadir of this bureaucratic purgatory, but the traffic department is a close competitor.

To spend some time inside any of the labyrinths of the South African civil service is to experience the ultimate in passive-aggressive behaviour. When I moved to the separate building for car licensing, I stood in a queue to get inside, then was told to sit in one of the waiting areas. After 40 minutes, I went up to the counter – where the woman was screaming “next” – and asked her if I could transfer the car. No, I was in the wrong queue. Go to counter 13.

As befits the superstition about that number, the civil servant – who was wearing a white Chiefs football shirt and had cool tattoos – was the most painful of the petty tyrants. I went up and asked the other people in the block of chairs if they didn’t mind me just asking what the procedure was. Chiefs fan was passive aggression incarnate.

I made the mistake of saying that I had been waiting for “an hour”, which included the time that I stood outside. Chiefs fan looked at my ticket and argued that it was only “half an hour”. No amount of remorsefulness on my part could help. Perhaps I shouldn’t have pointed out that it was 40 minutes and not an hour.

I kept asking him: “Please can you tell me what the correct procedure is?” He ranted about sitting in the queue in the block of chairs in front of me. Ironically, when I returned with the manager after another 10 minutes of trying to explain the problem, those people were instructed that they were sitting on the wrong chairs. I was actually the only person in the queue for counter 13. Not that it mattered.

The manager took me to counter 14, where the lady behind the massive slab of glass couldn’t move any slower. She also spoke in a whisper, despite my numerous requests for her to speak up so that I could hear her through the glass and her face mask. Eventually, I asked her if there was a problem. “Yes,” she replied, I “didn’t say sorry” to Chiefs fan. I kid you not.

I could go on (and on and on and on) about the mindless obsession with making people stay in their queue – expect these agents to seemingly do as they please – but everybody knows this pain.

I have spent enough time, throughout my life, in this warren of retribution to understand the psyche of these civil servants. They exude passive aggression, wait for the slightest slight (in my case calling 40 minutes an hour) and then their slow retribution starts.

They are trapped in eight hours at work, therefore they will condemn their customers (the people who pay their salaries) to the same purgatory.

But the queues were seemingly only for citizens who followed the rules and clearly not for the many so-called agents who performed this mundane task for others.

I watched the way innumerable people walked straight to the front of any queue, coming backwards and forwards with armfuls of papers. While sitting there, I started asking what their numbers were and how long they had stood in the queue. None of these guys were like us cowering citizens, afraid of falling foul of a vindictive petty tyrant. The queue rules didn’t apply to them.

Mbalula likes to claim this request-a-slot and online payment option (if only I could pay online) has solved the massive backlog of expired driving licences in Gauteng. Only on Planet ANC could anyone believe that. On the ground, the years of ANC incompetence are highly visible. The fancy machines used for updating your licence were “always breaking” and the contract had ended for those. I wonder whose ANC NEC family member got the contract?

It’s certainly these IT problems that are holding up the system, but it is just as clear that the misguided focus on pedantry nonsense is more important to the people who work at the traffic department than the actual job they are supposed to do. Come on Mr Fix, as Mbalula likes to call himself, here is a real problem you can fix. Sit in the Sandton testing station for an hour and watch how broken and corrupt it is. But be careful that you don’t offend the queue police.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Charles Parr says:

    The heading of this article says it and – ‘The hell of pointless bureaucracy’ and ‘My trip into the hell of driving licence renewal purgatory’. Fantastic.

  • B. Arnold Arnold says:

    I couldn’t agree more. Another bug bear of mine is how filthy all of the equipment is. When I worked I would wipe down my desk and equipment regularly. It was always clean. It didn’t belong to me but I had to use it and I didn’t want to use filthy equipment also I believed had a duty to look after the company property. Civil servants should be even more careful with government property as it has been paid for by the people and is used to serve the people.

  • Peter Doble says:

    Ah but the point is that the Republic has been renamed to Institutional Dysfunction. So the solution is just to ignore the bureaucracy – and of course the rule of law – then we can find utopia. QED.

  • virginia crawford says:

    I have to first day that the traffic department in Somerset West/ Strand is very efficient and friendly. The Home Affairs renewed my passport in 10 days – I had queued for ten minutes! Where are the managers at Sandton ? Who is accountable? Where can we, the people who pay their salaries, complain? These snarling, lazy uncivil servants can and should be replaced. Perhaps there should be regular breathalyzer and urine tests to check if these people are just drink or drugged. Wht should we put up with this? Wouldn’t it be fun for journalists to go in with concealed cameras and really put them on the spot?

    • Jane Crankshaw says:

      Welcome to the Western Cape! The rest of the Provinces run by the dysfunctional ANC are not worth commenting about – uneducated or unmotivated staff under incompetent unmotivated Managment = chaos and decline. So easy to fix…just vote for a party that makes things work! I actually feel sorry for CR – he knows the answer but is hamstrung by incompetence brought about by racist BEE policies that he dare not change!

  • Franz Dullaart says:

    These departments have an unwritten law – work at a tempo which maintains the length of the queue to some arbitrary length usually larger than 23.

  • Gerrit Marais says:

    This is not about bureaucracy. This is about civil (sic) servants’ greed and corruption. It is the same everywhere in South Africa. They do not want you to go to a desk as they cannot make money out of it. So, you are frustrated to the point where you have to go around the back where you buy (read bribe) a guaranteed pass. We recently went to the Edenvale testing center where on arrival we were asked if we are coming for a guaranteed pass or normal.

  • Andrew Johnson says:

    I need to renew my License but after reading this and hearing other anecdotal stories I am getting into a severe stress situation, 5 years ago it was so easy, what has happened? has the cadre deployment debacle finally taken absolute hold, like a creeping swamp sickness, slowly drifting with the sluggish waters of the Civil services sewage?

    • Frances Harman-Henlen says:

      Andrew, I left Gauteng in 2011 and, to this day, I still feel sick when I think about my visits to the Sandton Licencing Department, over the many years I lived there. I almost always experienced overt rudeness and disrespect. I don’t think I am a troublesome personality and I always felt the treatment I received was because I am a white female. Dealing with vehicle and driving licencing after moving to the Western Cape was a completely different experience. Added to which, the other municipal departments all work very well. Needless to say, I live in a DA run district.

  • mcihmirving says:

    And yet in KZN of all places there is a delightful town called Wartburg – close enough to drive to from Durban. We asked a policeman there, who couldn’t have been more pleasant, for directions and reached the licensing office about 10.30 a.m. I was in and out in about 45 minutes – all the staff members were pleasant and helpful, everything was clean, and there was time for a cup of coffee at a really attractive coffee shop before heading home again.

  • June Petersen says:

    Oh man! How I share these sentiments! I am ashamed to say that I pay additional money for the renewal of my vehicle licence (and have a private eye test) and the collection of my driver’s licence…the reason…I get anxiety attacks just thinking of having to enter that “purgatory” environment of hostility and waiting! When my time comes, I gradually build up my courage to just do the driver’s licence application.

  • Karin Swart says:

    Although things are much better in Cape Town, I certainly find that there are always one or two civil servants or “officials” that seem to enjoy bossing everyone around and firmly putting all the “cheeky white-ies” in their place. As a “whitey”, I also tend to get a bit frustrated if there are not sufficient notices, the pace of the service is extra-slow, or nothing seems to move for what seems like hours. Then I will try to very politely ask questions which sometimes get me answers (like that the system is “down”) and sometimes get me marked as “cheeky” and I get firmly told to get back in line (with an aside to a colleague that I don’t understand).
    These days, I just make sure I have water and toilet paper with me (along with any necessary documentation) and try to wrap my cloak of invisibility tightly around me, as I venture into the civil servants’ domain.

  • Steve Smith says:

    When dealing with ANY government department, I always take a book – and one that I’m not close to finishing!!! In a country where unemployment is reaching unprecedented levels, why are all these departments always under-staffed!?!?

  • Mickey Rees says:

    This is so similar to my own experience with the Sandton Licensing and Testing Station. The passive-aggressive and surly manner of the cashiers was excruciating and their determination not to serve must place strain on our economy when one considers that most of the employed population have to take at least 3-4 hours off work in order to perform what is a relatively simple task. In addition the only way to find out if your licence is ready to be collected is to go back to the same department in 6 weeks time. An SMS notification is not available and so yet again, one is forced to take another few hours off work to collect your licence. There isn’t any other way to find out if your licence is ready other than showing up in 6 weeks time, which I did, only to be told to try again next week. Seriously, is this the best we can do?

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