Face to face with the old man

When we arrived in Africa, we had to buy a car.

It was an interesting process: and also a little dispiriting to discover that 15 year old pick up trucks with 300,000km on the clock are still worth R65,000 (around £4,000).

We eventually settled on a Jeep Cherokee –  we wanted ‘plenty of room’ to fit our 5+ suitcases, and we felt like having 4×4 was a useful move. That turned out to be providence when we drove to Mseleni and took an accidental detour that included 60km on dirt roads, and around 20km just on sand.

On purchasing a used car, one has to register it within 21 days. To register it, one needs a proof of address. For a proof of address, you kinda need… an address.

Given our state of limbo for the first few weeks, we haven’t really had a valid place to call home, so it was only this week that I finally managed to drive north to Manguzi. My experience there was fairly typical of a standard African red tape experience:

I arrived at the post office at 8:50am. The doors were locked, people waiting outside. The official opening time? 8am.

At 9am, we were ushered in, and, waiting my turn, I found myself at the ‘Licencing’ window. The lady started to fill in the required forms, and asked for my ID. I handed her my passport. She looked shocked, but gathered herself and said,

“You need to go out and to this place”, gesturing ernestly to her right, “to have photographs”.

Somewhat unclear on the specifics of this statement, several minutes of conversation ensued. ‘This place’ was the municipal Welfare offices, and I needed photographs for a traffic permit, which I needed to prove that I was allowed to own a car, so that I could then fill in more forms to actually register that car.

Following the directions was easier than I had feared. Up the hill to the right was a dead end, with lots of official looking buildings. I drove there, and was sternly informed I wasn’t allowed to park in the spacious car park, but instead had to drive back down the hill, park on some sand, and walk back up.

This done, I asked where the Welfare office was. And was told that it wasn’t. I asked if, perhaps, there was a place to take photos. And was told there wasn’t. The helpful security guard even took me round some offices, asking lots of people if they could take my photo. They couldn’t.

I returned to the post office, feeling… frustrated. I had travelled a little way past exasperated and landed in angry. Not a good emotion –  as an excellent recent blog post by Jonathan Trotter explains.

The lady in the post office repeated her instruction to go “to the right, to the Welfare”. When I, somewhat shortly, explained that there was apparently no Welfare department, she exclaimed “Ah! No, not Welfare! Home Affairs!”. I thanked her curtly, with something less worthy than grace bubbling close to the surface, and returned to the car park in the sand.

I sat in the car, and realised that my heart was letting me down. We did not come to Africa for its remarkable beauracratic efficiency. We came here despite it. I love South Africa because of its people. Sure, the sun is nice, and cheap butternut squash is a bonus, but there’s something incredible woven into the culture.

There is a stoidism in the people here. And, yes, it belies a dangerous complacency, one that leads to many problems in need of solutions. But that’s a very Western viewpoint. There are many hearts here, filled with something alien to me: patience.

If indeed you have heard Him and have been taught by Him, as the truth is in Jesus: that you put off, concerning your former conduct, the old man.
Ephesians 4:20-22

I took a deep breath, vowed to appreciate rather than irritate, and headed up the hill. The same friendly security guard smiled, and pointed me towards the Department of Home Affairs.

Outside sat 20 people. There was no sign of a queue, just an open office with one official and 3 other people waiting. I stood for a few minutes, but nothing changed. I had fears of being sat on the sun for weeks, slowly become less and less motivated, so I walked apologetically into the office and said,

“Sawubona baba. Sorry, where do I take a photo?”

The official appraised me sternly. “Outside”, he said, gesturing left.

A quick glance to the left showed an empty car and a fence. Wary of my previous experience with gestured directions that day, I ventured, “Sorry, where exactly?”.

With a frown, and clearly irritated that I didn’t understand his excellent instructions, he barked, “The old man. Talk to the old man!”.

I looked left. There was no man. Or woman. Not even a stray cow. Turning back, I saw an older gentleman, sat in the group of silent, waiting people. Feeling surreal, I hesitantly asked him, “Sorry baba, are you the… old man”.

He peered at me with an expression of complete non-comprehension. It probably didn’t help that I had addressed him with “Baba”, Zulu for “Father”, a sign of respect, but a word that also means “Old man”. Despite his failure to answer the simple query “Sorry old man, are you the… old man”, it was clear that I was barking up the wrong tree.

Eventually, after some more partially understood conversations, I located the old man. In a portaloo, talking on his phone. I waited outside, and was surprised at how peaceful I found myself.

Some time later the old man exited the toilet, removed some slightly decrepit camera equipment from his equally decrepit car, and walked towards the group of waiting people. Half of whom stood up. It turned out they had all been waiting for photos too –  yet had totally ignored me when I had been asking about exactly that!

Finally, nearly 2 hours after leaving it, I found myself back in the post office. After a further full hour stood at the service window, answering questions and paying random amounts of money – first R170 (£9.50), then R520 (£35), then R4.50 (25p) –  I had a shiny vehicle registration to call my own!

Overall, did I enjoy the experience? You know what –  I kinda did. Although if I hadn’t taken a book, that answer might have been a wee bit different…

3 responses

  1. Car registration via post office still quite a new thing. At Malelane we still use the traffic dept. It has a one way door at the exit. I went out and back in at the main entrance to get some paperwork sorted in total of 6 times in one visit. Was a patience test.

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