I have always been a foreigner. I’ve never lived in a country where I could cast a vote. I’ve had a million passports and a million visas in them. I’ve gone home, to the place of my birth, only once in the 35 years I’ve been abroad. It wasn’t even called Serbia when I left her, it was still under the socialist hand of Tito, and it was comprised of six republics, all now separate countries from what was then called Yugoslavia.
I’ve had a long love affair with the South Africa Home Affairs office. From the days of student visas, to being deported, fingerprinted in the dead of night at various African borders, dog sniffed, stopped and goed, detained, arrested, released, waved through, solicited, stuffed and hidden in the back seat of a friend’s car, denied and accepted; everything you can possibly imagine can happen at immigration, has happened to me.
I remember the days when you had to take a thick book with you to read and pass the time while waiting in a queue that went on forever and took the whole day for you to be seen at the counter. If it went past the working hours, you had to come back again the next day. There is no privilege available at Home Affairs. One cannot simply ‘call the manager.’ You had to shut up and take it. You had to wait in line like all the other foreigners. There was a certain satisfaction watching foreigners who thought they’d jump the queue get fuck off’d at the counter. We’d also sit quietly and grin and wait for it, knowing that they’re in for a nasty surprise. Nope, at Home Affairs, all foreigners are ONE. That is to say, we were all disliked equally by the Home Affairs crew.
But like good foreign sheep, we all sat there waiting with hope that we’ll get to stay another year. There were mothers feeding their babies in a corner, students flicking scurrying cockroaches off of their open books, only three, broken plastic chairs occupied by the most frail, people sweating and smelling from the lack of air conditioning, food aromas wafting from the bags of people clever enough to bring a meal. You couldn’t just leave temporarily and lose your place! If you were thirsty, hard luck. You were lucky to be able to visit the loo, but only if really pressed.
A few years ago, a company called VFS Global was given the rights to facilitate foreign visa processing for South Africa. In many ways, this was a godsend to foreigners who were used to applying directly from Home Affairs; the new visa place was in a fancy, air conditioned building with an appointment system that actually worked! The only drawback was an extra fee – quite a large sum for most – one had to pay before even stepping into the building. For example, to renew a relative’s visa, you would have no fee at Home Affairs, but you have to cough up almost R1600 to have vfs process it for you. If you didn’t want to pay it, and you called Home Affairs to find out how else to go about it, they’d redirect you to vfs. Of course, those in the know know that they can’t deny you the right to apply for a visa, but most just pay and go to the fancy place anyway. You learn pretty fast that complaining is not something one does when you’re a foreigner looking for a visa…
Vfs Global is a successful company originating from India, that processes visas in countries all around the world. On their board of directors are South Africa’s personas non gratas Duduzane Zuma and Rajesh Gupta… Apparently vfs has since denied this to be true. Anyway, I’m not about to call Carte Blanche about it because it just might be the one good thing the Guptas have done for South Africa!
Fast forward to today. Some complications with my passport and new visa requirements (there are new ones every two years) meant I could no longer do it alone so I had to employ an agent to help me. I was lucky to whittle down the fee to something I could actually afford. (It can cost up to and more than R25000 to have an immigration agent do the shlep for you.)
The agency’s offices are right next door to the old building on Barrack Street in Cape Town; the forever home of the dreaded Department of Home Affairs. Walking up those cracked old steps, the paint run smooth by the hopeful shoes of all who dared to enter, politely declining offers of black pens, ID photos, car washes, making a way past the grumpy Somalians waiting in line outside for some strange reason, turning just at the thresholdy revolving doors of the entrance to Home Affairs, entering into the little tiny space of my chosen agency, I prayed that it would be turn out to be a good day after all.
Inside, old, tattered, school classroom chairs line the walls. A small, unattended empty desk with a phone is to the right. There are two makeshift cubicles directly opposite the foreigner assembly line, half covered, half glass so you can see inside: two lonely chairs make up their complete contents. The agents are casually dressed without name tags. You can only tell the foreigners apart from where they are sitting. To my left sits a young, tall, skinny, pretty, dark Senegalese girl, next to her, a short chubby couple; he, Pakistani, she – a South African Muslim woman. Next to her an Indian man in a black leather jacket and wet, shoulder length hair sits playing with his phone. Next to him is a large fish tank. The fish are still alive and swimming. We all take this to be a good sign.
We sit and reminisce about Home Affairs. There are no first timers; the moment you step into the country, you are chained by your obligation to it. We all nod and shake our heads as we compare stories. There is an admirable camaraderie amongst us foreigners; we all fought in the same war, on the same side. It feels good not to be alone…
Time to go to the fancy building that houses vfs. We are apparently going to walk there. It’s on Strand Street, a couple of kilometers away and it’s raining. I offer my car and two agents, the sweet chubby couple (married for one year but have known each other for sooooo long and his English has really improved I don’t ask questions) pack into my car. We’re on our way, cracking jokes, as if what’s happening is part of just another normal rainy day in Cape Town.
We arrive at fancy place. I bid the couple good luck and farewell. We look at each other one last time and nod that knowing nod of hopefulness and despair that only visa applications can evoke…
Well, it took all of twenty minutes for my agent to sort me out. In fact, they were calling my number at the next window before they even finished at the first one! I was flabbergasted! I turned around and saw about thirty people sitting, waiting in chairs for their turn. I didn’t even have to SIT, man! I brought my book for nothing! I walked past them feeling guilty for having it so easy. If they only knew what I’d previously been through, they’d be clapping for me, I swear.
I hugged my agent goodbye, twice! I went downstairs dizzy with incredulity. I bought myself a celebratory coffee at a nearby kiosk and tipped the barista ten bucks! I said: “Keep the change my good man; today was a good day at Home Affairs!” To which he replied: “Oh my sista, I know all about it! Enjoy it!”
So that’s it. I survived another visa application. And lived to tell the tale of that time when it was a good day at immigration! Who’d a thunk?! Not I!