My phone went flat. I was forced to look around. People were talking. People were helping each other.
A normal day in the life of a South African… true story.
I had to renew my car license disc. Inside the licencing station was a good representation of the ZA demographic: A couple of white folks, double as many Indian folks, double that again black folks.
(Just outside were a bunch of Zimbabweans and Mozambicans selling ID photos and who knows what else, but generally being enterprising.)
The air-conditioning was broken and there was barely enough space to stand, let alone sit, so we were all forced into close quarters. But there we were, SOUTH AFRICANS taking time off from work to go and pay our taxes.
There were three queues, none of which had any signs saying what they were for. I tried following the same procedure as last year and wasted 20 minutes before the Gogo next to me noticed I had failed to get a stamp that was now required from queue 1 before one could join queue 3. She politely interrupted my thoughts and set me straight.
Having rejoined queue 1 for 25 mins and nearly reached the front a man tried to bypass and ask the cashier for a form. Just the form. It would take 5 seconds. NO, he must join the queue she decreed. Once my business was done I asked for some of the forms and handed them out to those behind, shortening the queue.
Back to queue 3 where Gogo had kept my place: my phone went flat. I was forced to look around. People were talking. People were helping each other. People were discussing our common issues and how best to get out of there. There was reminiscing about that time 3 years ago when the aircon was working. Those with unsolvable problems at the front blushed in the knowledge they were delaying those behind. Those lost were given directions.
Those confused were helped by those who had been confused before they were helped. All of this helping came not from the staff of the licencing department, but from the SOUTH AFRICANS.
Against this backdrop the employees at the licensing department were neither lazy nor lacking in dedication. They were clearly doing their job within the framework that had been set up for them. The framework was inefficient and just plain unnecessary at times, but they functioned in it as best they could. Good people doing their best in a bad system that is clearly crumbling (if the broken chairs are anything to go by.)
During my 3 hours in those rooms nobody did anything because they were black. Nobody did anything because they were white. Nobody spoke up and nobody spoke down to anyone.
As a group all we did was survive against a common challenge. That challenge was not caused by evil. It was caused by inefficiency brought on by a failure to maintain a national asset.
I wonder, left alone, how long would it have taken for all of the SOUTH AFRICANS in that room to come to the conclusion that the system wasn’t working. That it could be better. After a while, maybe we would have forced something to be done to improve it?
But outside, one by one we parted ways again. Into a world where somebody is telling stories and making us suspicious of each other. Where I am told that we are different and that we can’t be friends and work together because of the past.
By Shell Curtis Goliath