I wish someone had told me – it’s really easy to get a new passport!

Home Affairs. Two words that strike fear in the hearts of all South Africans. There’s a reason we all look like thugs in our passport and ID photos. Just the thought of having to go through the process is enough to bring a frown to even the happiest of faces.

And so it was with great trepidation that I embarked on the process of renewing my passport a couple of weeks ago. I scoured the net for one of those queuing services. I think I used them once before, possibly the last time I had my passport renewed. But sadly there’s no hope of getting your passport by remote control anymore. You have to show up at Home Affairs in person. So I enlisted a company to help me – sort of a chaperone service.

I met my chaperone Robert on a Friday afternoon on the stoep outside the Home Affairs office in the Joburg CBD. I made a bit of an adventure of it, catching the Gautrain to Park Station and walking over the Harrison Street bridge.

Home Affairs Rosebank to Park Station

The next train to Park is a four-car train and will depart in eight minutes

<Aside> The trip cost about R60 return, including parking at Rosebank station. I still get emotional riding the Gautrain. It’s like being in the New York Subway, London Underground or Paris Metro, except it doesn’t smell like pee. And it’s home! New York, London, Paris, Joburg – so cosmopolitan.

 Speaking of pee, the Gautrain station is probably the only place on the commute that doesn’t smell like it. Walking down Wolmarans Street, into Harrison and over the bridge was excruciating for my garden-suburbs nose. It’s probably the biggest urinal (and worse) in the city. Maybe the world. Dodging puddles took on a whole new significance. The content of the billboard at the end of the bridge also spoke volumes about the folk who generally make the trip. “I like to give my clients pleasure,” it says, “not HIV.” But that’s one of the things I love about Jozi: not everyone is like me. <End of aside>

Waiting for Robert, who turned out to be half an hour late, gave me the chance to watch people passing by. It was 3pm and everyone was hurrying home with their weekend provisions. (There’s always someone in town with one of those loooooooong bags of chips precariously squashed under one arm, and a small child attached to the other.) It’s a fascinating place to sit because there’s a bottleneck on the corner of Plein and Harrisons Streets between the Home Affairs office and a fenced off area that seems earmarked for some or other transport or infrastructure purpose.

Anyway, Robert eventually arrived and whisked me into the Home Affairs public hall. What a crazy place! There doesn’t seem to be any logical flow.

“This way,” he said. “Give me your ID.” An urgent tone in his voice.

Home Affairs HIV billboard

I like to give my clients pleasure, not HIV

As I handed it over, the sum total of my cash on hand – R80 – dropped out of my ID book, creating way more interest than I ever would have expected. Robert handed the book over to the clerk (who had shown more interest in the cash than anyone else) and had a rapid conversation with him in Vernac. Friendly. Like, “How are you, you old bugger?! What’s been happening?? Are you planning a big weekend???” Much jovial laughter.

And then to me, “Do you want your Smart ID, too? Here, tick this box. You are here now. You must give me R140. Tick here. Here.”

I didn’t have a pen. Or R140.

“It’s ok,” he said. “I’ll pay. You can draw at the ATM afterwards.”

And off we went to the cashier’s office.

“Where’s this lady?” he said, annoyed. “Why only one window? This people. Ayi. Where are they?” (I could see where they were – walking up and down officiously with bits of paper, going in and out of offices, chatting at the photocopier.)

The cashier arrived behind the caged window. We were second in line. No, wait, third. A large lady in peach arrived and explained that she had been here earlier, or stood in the wrong queue, or I don’t know what … some reasonable excuse. But it was generally accepted that she was ahead of us. All was good.

When it was our turn, Robert paid the cashier after a rebuke in Vernac about her absence, followed by some more jovial banter. I stood by helplessly for a bit before being marched off for photographs. There was a family ahead of us. The kids were in school uniform. Fancy, northern suburbs schools. Dad was fidgety, pacing up and down. Mom went into the photo booth with her hairbrush and stayed in there for a really, really long time.

Home affairs application form

Tick the ‘Smart Card’ box. You’ll be so glad you did

“Why only one person working here?” asked Robert again, annoyed. He let out a long township tongue click. “Ayi. This people.”

“Maybe you should come and be in charge here,” I suggested.

“I will sort them out,” he replied, humourlessly.

There was no doubt in my mind that he would.

As soon as hairbrush lady was done, Robert sprang into usher mode, grabbing my documents and rushing into the photo booth. The up-and-down lever on the seat was broken, so I had to semi-squat in order to get my head into the frame. I wondered why they didn’t simply lift the camera a bit … but this isn’t my circus. Maybe Robert will think of that when he takes over.

Remembering the morbid, thuggish expression I’d displayed in both my last passport and ID, I thought I’d try and sneak in a little smile – not enough to be rejected, but enough to look like I’m not a subject candidate for the Crime Network. Between my half-smile and the strain of having to half-squat, I missed the “happy-guy” look completely and ended up having to settle for “smarmy-bastard” on the fourth or fifth take. (The first few were out of focus because I couldn’t keep quite still enough.)

From there it was on to fingerprints.

“Can I see your current passport, please?” the lady asked me.

“I don’t have it with me,” I said.

“Awwwwww…” she said, “this is a problem. I am supposed to look at your old passport. Is it full?”

“No, I think there are still two or three pages empty.”

“Two? Or three?” she asked. “Can you remember exactly?”

“Ok, let’s say two,” I said.

“But I need to see it,” she said. “Can I say it is full? Because I see you still have six months left on it. Why are you applying now?”

“Because I need a passport that’s more than six months from expiry for my French visa.”

“But it’s still got six months.”

“Yes, but it won’t when I go to apply for my visa.”

At this point, Robert pulled me aside.

“She wants something from you,” he said. “Like some money.”

“First of all, no,” I said. “And secondly, I don’t have any money. You know that.”

“Yes,” he said. “It’s a problem.”

I turned back to the lady.

“What if I come back on Monday with my current passport?” I asked.

She looked pained and shook her head a little bit.

“Let me see what I can do,” she said, and wandered over to the crowd chatting at the photocopier.

<Aside #2> I consciously didn’t bring my current passport because I was worried they would keep it, with my valid US visa and all. <End of Aside>

Now we wait a bit. It’s getting closer to 4pm, so I know these guys want to go home.

“I managed to make a plan,” she said, and winked at me like I was the most charming person in the world. What can I say? Chicks dig me.

And that was that. Forty minutes after I met Robert, our business was concluded. We ran up to the ATM at Bank City, then back to Robert’s car (where he paused to have a pee), before I was whisked back to the Gautrain station where my air-conditioned eight-carriage commuter train awaited.

“Call me when you hear back from them,” he said along the way.

A week later I got a notice that my Smart ID was ready, and two days later my passport was ready. I called Robert.

“Go after 12,” he advised. “That’s when it’s quieter.”

I decided to go back on my own to collect the docs – in my car. I drove into town and parked half a block away from Home Affairs. The collection process was surprisingly efficient, although there are no signs up saying where to start or what to do. You actually have to collect a ticket from a person whose sole job (it seems) is handing them out. This is not apparent at all, and I had to ask another citizen on the bench with me where he got his – while Ticket Man stared at me saying nothing. But that aside, it took 20 minutes to get my documents, and that was that. I was back in the office an hour after I left.

So here are my tips … I wish someone had told me!

  1. If you’re going to apply for a new passport, you may as well apply for your Smart ID at the same time. No one at Home Affairs will make that suggestion. You need to ask.
  2. They only accept cash – R400 for a passport and R140 for a Smart ID.*
  3. Take a pen with you.
  4. Make sure you get a ticket. This has your queue number on it. No number, no official place in line, no service.
  5. If you don’t know how, ask someone – either an official or a fellow applicant. Everyone’s friendly in Home Affairs (except a chaperone who believes things are moving too slowly, and the guy who dispenses tickets).
  6. Take your green ID book and your current passport with you. I found out subsequently that they won’t keep either of them. It was just my heightened sense of parabureaucorruptaphobia** that kicked in.
  7. Go as late in the day as possible. This seems to work. Both times I went at 3pm on a Friday.
  8. Having spoken to a number of people who have been through the process recently, I established that there’s no “better” office to go to in Greater Joburg. They all seem to operate as efficiently as each other.
  9. Don’t go with any expectations. You may get lucky, or you may not. There are no guarantees.
  10. Use a document service if you like. I found it very comforting having Robert there, but I wish someone had told me how to navigate the system I would have been fine without him. Admittedly, waiting half an hour for him to arrive didn’t get our relationship off to a good start, but he did come in handy.

Compared to my previous encounters with Home Affairs, getting my new passport was not unpleasant at all. I took my book to read while I waited, but I didn’t even open it. So… more to read on the plane to Paris!


* As at March 2016
** Parabureaucorruptophobia n.: the fear that some illogical, bureaucratic process, or civil servant on the take, will leave you compromised and frustrated