When Kabelo Thibedi finally reached breaking point and pulled a gun on a civil servant at South Africa’s Department of Home Affairs, his act of desperation achieved instant results.
”If I had not done so … I would not have gotten my ID book. It was delivered to me that same day with the age error in it corrected,” recalls the 23-year-old student from Soweto.
”I regret my action but I did it out of frustration.”
Like thousands of his fellow citizens, Thibedi had fallen victim to the bureaucratic nightmare of a government department that has long been a byword for incompetence and corruption.
In a country where almost nothing can be processed without an identity book, slips of the pen can prevent citizens from receiving benefit payments, applying for jobs, opening bank accounts, travelling abroad and starting up businesses.
While South Africa prides itself on being the continent’s cutting-edge economy, a visit to home affairs can feel like a step back in time with piles of paperwork mounting up behind desks with first-generation computers.
Rather than join the queues in city centres, which begin long before dawn, many people choose to hire someone to stand in line for them.
When they do come face to face with the civil servants, it can still be a trying experience.
In a recent radio phone-in on the subject, one caller told how he received a death certificate instead of the green national ID book he had applied for.
Another man spoke of how he had spent months trying to get officials to correct his sex in his ID book, while a father-of-five had his benefit payments suspended for over two years as he was mistaken for a deceased namesake.
The Sowetan reported recently how a newly widowed Johannesburg woman who tried to collect her late husband’s estate found home affairs had not only annulled their marriage but also recorded that her spouse had remarried eight months after his death.
Foreigners who cannot afford lawyers often face an even tougher ordeal, such as Zimbabwean refugee Adonis Musati, who found himself unable to search for work while officials dallied over his paperwork as they tried to determine whether he was entitled to refugee status.
”He [Musati] died of hunger while his refugee paper was still being processed,” his compatriot, Nicholas Dube, told Agence France-Presse.
Announcing a recent crackdown on fraud, the department said it had unearthed evidence of more than 1 500 fraudulent marriage and 200 fraudulent birth certificates being issued in the first 10 months of last year by corrupt employees.
”The department is using its resources … in its fight against corruption committed by persons inside and outside the department,” Director General Mavuso Msimang said after the arrest of nearly 200 civil servants for fraud.
In an accompanying statement, the department said that 10 000 complaints had been lodged between September 2001 and the end of November 2007.
Several people interviewed confirmed that they had paid home affairs insiders to provide them false documents.
”I got South African citizenship shortly after I contracted a marriage with a South African lady six years ago but the conjugal relationship is frozen,” a 44-year-old Nigerian said on condition of anonymity.
Thibedi tried to play his complaints by the book but it was only when he held a terrified female civil servant hostage with a replica firearm two years ago in Johannesburg that a corrected document was delivered post-haste from the department’s headquarters in Pretoria, about 50km away.
After taking delivery of the paperwork however, he was immediately arrested and sentenced to five years in prison — a term he is now appealing.
”I regret my action but I did it out of frustration. But I tell those I now help not to emulate what I did,” said Thibedi, who offers courses advising people how to wade their way through the red tape. — AFP