It’s shortly after 5am on Friday 1 April and a couple of cars are already parked outside the Department of Home Affairs in Roodepoort, Gauteng. The lights from the double-storey building and security booth shine a spotlight on the growing line of figures leaning against the green palisade fence in an orderly queue.
One woman is wrapped in a blanket, signalling the approach of winter. Most are wearing masks. Some are seated in fold-out camping chairs in preparation for the long day ahead. Occasionally, taxis stop on busy Albertina Sisulu Road to offload passengers who quickly join the existing queue or form new lines. The queues begin to snake around the block as the sun starts to rise.
The four queues that form are for ID and passport applications, booking appointments, birth certificate and temporary ID applications, and ID and passport collection. It’s easy to join the wrong queue without the assistance of the car guards, who will keep places in the line for impatient applicants for a fee.
The security guards employed by Phuthadichaba Trading Enterprises are supposed to help people. But they are locked comfortably inside the premises, waiting for 8am before they start booking appointments.
“I was not aware that I was supposed to make a booking for an appointment. Last month when I came here, I was served on the same day without prior booking,” said a frustrated Solomon Marelela, who was sent home by the security guards for not being able to provide confirmation of an appointment. Marelela travels from Braamfischerville in Soweto, spending R30 on taxis. He stood in line for more than three hours to reapply for a new ID document after losing his.
Backlogs, but shorter hours
The home affairs website claims the department is working on reducing queues. But the limited weekday operating hours – from 8am to 4pm – since it discontinued Saturday working hours have exacerbated issues around walk-ins.
The department blames misinformation around the discontinuation of green ID books, a lack of floor management and limited infrastructure as root causes of the disarray.
There are more than 200 000 smart ID cards and 70 000 green bar-coded ID books waiting to be collected across the country. And only 184 of 411 frontline offices are modernised and connected to the system to provide Smart ID cards and passports.
To solve these problems, it encourages only first-time applicants – 16 years and older – and pensioners to walk in. Everyone else is advised to make an appointment.
Christina Tshabangu’s 17-year-old daughter Ntombenhle had her name misspelt on her birth certificate, which says Nhlenhle. Tshabangu has spent years trying to get it amended. “I have given up fighting but this still haunts me each day, because Ntombenhle uses her real name at school even though her birth certificate does not reflect that.” Tshabangu also accused the staff at home affairs of being rude and incompetent.
Leah Makgato went to home affairs in February 2020 to upgrade her child’s birth certificate to an unabridged version. She wants her husband recognised so that if something happens to her, he has the legal power to step in. But “they don’t want to assist me with this matter,” she says, “and no one is willing, including the manager. At first they told me it was because of the Covid-19 situation.”
Most schools now require an unabridged birth certificate when children apply. And to reduce cross-border abductions, parents have to produce an unabridged birth certificate when travelling with a minor without the other parent.
Makgato says the department recognises her application on their system, but has not yet printed the certificate. The fault lies with Pretoria’s main offices, she’s been told, and the home affairs staff in Roodepoort can’t help her because it’s “out of their hands”.
Dimakatso Mashebela’s daughter has a similar problem to Ntombenhle. Her name is Khanyisa, but it was incorrectly printed as Khangisa on her ID. “To fix the problem, I was told to pay R70 and bring copies of my ID and my husband’s,” says Mashebela. Told it would be sorted out within three months, it has now been more than a year. “She is 17 years old now and doing grade 12. The ID is desperately needed for her to write examinations.”
Judge President of the Eastern Cape Selby Mbenenge found in 2019 that Section 29 of the Constitution protects the right of all children to basic education, whether or not they have official documentation, and that they have the right to write matric. He found that clauses 15 and 19 of the school admissions policy for ordinary public schools were unconstitutional.
The ubiquitous ‘system down’
Those fortunate to have internet access were still forced to join the queue. “I can show you my SMS where I sat three, four nights in a row for three hours a night trying to log in with OTP and everything,” says Mandy Pereira.
She and her husband had tried unsuccessfully for several months to apply online for passports for themselves and their three children. Coming to home affairs in person was their last resort. “The department’s online booking is a logistical nightmare and the attitude of the workers needs to improve,” says Craig Pereira.
Home affairs began letting in groups of people at 8am, but they took longer than expected to come out. A rumour began doing the rounds that the system was offline. After a while, officials came outside to address the now disgruntled and impatient crowd. They confirmed that the shutdown was nationwide and that technicians were working to resolve the problem.
Later, the department released a statement saying the damaged cable that caused their system to go down was connected to the State Information Technology Agency. The only services available were passport collections and handwritten death certificates.
But at home affairs in Roodepoort, even the passport collectors were told to come back “next Monday”.
The Department of Home Affairs has not responded to a request for comment.