/ 22 January 2008

Rainbow nation, red tape

I have spent most of my life trying to fight injustice — and thankfully there is still the space to do so in South Africa. But not once did I consider the impact of South Africa’s archaic public- and private-sector rules on people who were born elsewhere.

Of course, for many if not most political and economic refugees, coming to South Africa is a harrowing experience. Anyone who has ever tried to cross the border on foot will know that South Africa is not a welcoming place. At Lindela and other detention centres, overcrowding, harassment, corruption and xenophobia are all part of the daily diet.

But if fate delivered you here — because of love, friendship or a passion to work and explore new places — you will soon find yourself wading through a quagmire of rules, regulations, queues and bullshit!

I speak from experience. Even though my partner, a highly skilled professional, is here legally — and even though we are legally married — he and I, like other similarly situated couples, have seen the underbelly of xenophobia.

No, we have not been harassed or beaten by the cops or deported from Lindela. No, we have not crossed lion-infested parks on foot in the dead of night. No, we are not denied health services, because we have private medical cover. And no one has asked him to pronounce the Zulu word for elbow.

But we have come up against bureaucratic indifference, appal-ling inefficiency and red tape that seems designed to turn any law-abiding person into one who questions the point of the law.

We have spent numerous full days queuing at Home Affairs — for work permits, for residency permits (it took my husband two-and-a-half years to get his permanent residency status processed, but only after I threatened legal action), for an ID (wait nine months we were told). Now, anyone in this country knows that without an ID you cannot access services, unless you are extremely wealthy. Every kind of formal service and contract takes longer to process.

Last month, Virgin Mobile (a British company that claims to be different) informed us that because my husband is a foreigner without an ID (we are still waiting for that to arrive) his application for a cellphone contract is subject to a ”forensic investigation”. Can Richard Branson please explain that one to me?

And the list goes on. Without permanent residency status, you cannot get a South African driver’s licence, effectively barring you from getting car insurance coverage. If this process takes three years or longer, too bad.

Then try buying a house together — a curiously common activity among married couples! Without even flinching, a Standard Bank representative told me that because I am married to a foreigner, we would have to pay a larger deposit to qualify for a mortgage loan — larger than the amount that I would pay if I were married to a South African or if I took the loan out alone. Why? ”Well, that is the rule.”

If it is so hard for people with legal documents to live and work here, how hard is it for refugees fleeing political persecution and violence, far from their support systems? No wonder bribes are exchanged for that wretched ID document; no wonder corruption thrives.

If South Africa, as part of the community of nations, is going to respect the right of non-citizens to enter, travel, live and work here, then we seriously need to rethink how we do that in a manner consistent with the Constitution. The current system alienates people and threatens to undermine the very ”security” that the government and private sector seem so preoccupied with.

We must cut the red tape that ties up anyone, citizens included, who has the misfortune of dealing with Home Affairs and other public and private-sector bureaucracies. I doubt that this is how our former comrades were treated when they lived in exile around the world.

Please, the time has come to reciprocate goodness and respect.

Fatima Hassan is a senior attorney with the Aids Law Project. She writes in her personal capacity