Bruce Whitfield: Restoring South Africa is going to be a hard task – ask anyone who's been to Home Affairs
- The votes are cast and are being counted. Meanwhile, South Africa is in a mess.
- The problems the next government will need to address are huge.
- Home affairs is a great example of just how bad things have become.
If you didn’t pause for a moment, perhaps get a little choked up at the enormity of the responsibility you faced as you contemplated putting your crosses on the national and provincial ballot papers yesterday, then perhaps you didn’t grasp the enormity of the task ahead for our next government.
Cleaning up the endemic corruption of the last decade of misrule, that is going to be the easy part. Dealing with its consequences, that is going to be far harder.
Lots of small towns – and an alarming number of cities – are failing. Most provinces are floundering. National government has barely held it together as a lack of growth has exacerbated the crises which afflict ordinary South Africans on a daily basis.
Go to the emergency room of any public hospital at 10PM on a Friday, queue at Home Affairs, line up for a social grant and there is no way you can argue the state is a productive engine for the economy. Government wants to administer a national health insurance (NHI). Based on what we know about public service delivery, the health system is doomed to further failure unless government approaches its public duty differently. And unless it gets the proper help it needs to fix the mess it’s been instrumental in creating.
There are few better examples than Home Affairs.
You don’t choose to go to Home Affairs; it’s a legal requirement for you to update critical documents from time to time.
If you are lucky enough to travel internationally, it’s to renew your passport every ten years (or every five for a child and both parents must be present, regardless of how long the process takes.)
If it’s to register the birth of a child, and you barely have the energy to stand, never mind wait in mind-numbing queues, you have to be there.
If it’s at a time of deep loss when you have to register the death of a loved one so as to bring about the winding up of their estate, you have to be there.
So, it’s at times of excitement, great joy and deep loss that Home Affairs is the place where the state requires you to comply with its bureaucratic demand on you, and for which you pay a not-inconsiderable amount of money.
Yet it is unable to cope with the demands on it. During a recent visit an irate citizen was castigating a security guard for the fact that the queue wasn’t moving quickly enough for their liking. A harassed woman at the enquiries desk was trying to explain to a furious man, in apparent good health, that the SMS on his phone purporting to come from his health insurer was insufficient cause for him to jump the queue. Behind the counters, staff were drawn and tense, facing yet another day of infuriated “clients” fed up at having to queue from well before sunrise with no guarantee of getting to their jobs before lunchtime.
No-one was happy. Not the staff, and not the citizens doing what is required of them by law to do.
It is a fundamental lack of respect by the state not only for its citizens but for the people who work for it.
That has to change. And government needs to get over itself and get the private sector to help.
Home Affairs has been running pilot projects at two branches of each major banking group in Johannesburg now for several years. Somehow Standard Bank has been given the go-ahead to operate a Home Affairs branch in its Canal Walk branch outside Cape Town, while other banks are yet to get approval to do the same thing.
It’s a great innovation, which – if rolled out fully – would alleviate some of the pressure on Home Affairs offices.
It’s infuriating that a government department struggling to do its job drags its feet on such a development. More worrying is that there is no sign from the department that it ever intends modernising its application process, allowing for the capture of basic details and payments online to reduce waiting times and introduce a little efficiency to a fundamentally flawed process.
It’s time for technocrat to take charge and shake up Home Affairs, in the same way that the health minister needs to fix health by going back to basics (rather than simply demanding more public money to throw into a bottomless pit) and in the same way that the education minister needs to teach kids to read and learn while inspiring parents to get involved and help their children get a better opportunity than they ever had.
Of course it’s hard. If it was easy as waving a magic wand, it would be done. It’s going to take real work to fix the mess this next government has inherited. It will be wasting all of our time if it fails to at least start the fix.
Bruce Whitfield is a multi-platform award-winning financial journalist and broadcaster.
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