The Ecosystem of Government Department Queues

Image result for cartoon pictures of queues

I seem to have spent the last few months queueing. I have endured whole days in these haloed halls of the people, for the people and with the people: labour department (three different ones), home affairs, maintenance court, traffic department, Tygerberg Dental Clinic, Groote Schuur outpatients clinic and pharmacy (a world of its own) and a police station. I am now an expert in queues and the sub-cultures that develop around them.

Like all good bureaucratic devices to lower your self-esteem, queues have guards. Now these custodians of power are more Cerberus than ghaadtjie and seldom have a sense of humour. Often they have control over x-ray machines and sign-in books, which they either scrutinise as if they were at the door of a prison, or ignore completely so you could sign yourself ‘Mickey Mouse’ and they wouldn’t notice. Sometimes they look at you. One particular Tartar at the labour department walked the queue at about 10h00, saying that there was no chance of the folk beyond a certain point remaining since we would not be seen and that if we were ‘good citizens’ we would leave and return another day. Being a dutiful taxpayer I left. And returned the following day at 7h00, having left home at a time when even Table View traffic was fluid. (Yet still I joined the queue around the block.)

Occasionally the guards double as clerks, but even then they are dazed and detached. I wonder what it must be like to deal with the great unwashed daily. They have seen all types: the supplicant, the harried, the garrulous and the arrogant – and dismissed us all. We are mere numbers to them.  After all, most of these queuing systems give you a number anyway. Home Affairs was the most confusing for this. There seemed to be no logic to the order in which our numbers were called (in a pseudo-cheerful, robotic American voice). The maintenance court, on the other hand, has no clerk at all. One is left to bumble down corridors, sans directions, hopefully to stumble into the waiting room for the court. If you’re lucky a fellow plaintiff will remind you to sign in and then you wait…and wait.

More importantly, what all these departments have in common is this: There are no pens. Not even those chained, roped and sellotaped jobs that they used to have in banks and post offices. (Btw, please note that, brave as I am, I have not ventured into a post office in my fevered public department jaunts. I draw the line at that test of my endurance.)

Restrooms do not provide the promised rest either. One of the strangest signs I saw was this, also in the Barrack Street labour department building: Please do not change your baby in this bathroom.’ Huh? Where, pray, would they rather the wee mites be cleaned up? If one is fortunate though, there may be loo paper, but forget about paper towels or soap. Mind you, I think Maintenance Court offers a neon pink mixture which looks as though it has been a little close to the Koeberg reactor, but that may be loo cleaner because it is in an unidentifiable plastic dispenser.

The real experience however, is in the interaction among us plebians as we wait. If you’re lucky, you are seated (if you’re lucky enough to get ‘on the chairs’ as people do the sideways buttocks shuffle, chair by chair) alongside an affable type who is happy to share a laugh or wry observation without being intrusive. Of course when the aunty starts showing you her grandkids’ pics on her phone or her latest instagrammed meal, you realise you might have gone too far on the friendly scale.

At the hospitals it can be quite fun, because one thinks one is nodding politely to an unusual fellow patient, only to realise they believe they are Moses. One old lady at Groote Schuur seemed to believe we were with her in her spy cell. We scuttled away to avoid further collaboration.

All queues share the heavy breathers who sigh, huff and puff about systemic inefficiency and the unfairness of our lot. They complain to no one in particular and oddly enough, although they are voicing the general feeling of impotence in the face of irresolutely implacable administrators, no one joins in. And they tend to splutter to an indignant hiss when faced with our general silence.

The only time the queue is united is when God forbid, someone attempts to push in. Queue jumpers are universally and roundly targeted, rebuked and returned to the back where they belong. Sometimes this self-policing is really amusing, depending on the level of outrage and how strident the exchange is; other times it is mildly entertaining – anything to alleviate the tedium of waiting.)

What has certainly stayed with me is that while individual buildings have made real efforts to manage their lines, the level of comfort is directly proportional to how important the populace is viewed. The Department of Labour in Riebeeck Street, geared towards employers and their issues, finds itself in a modern building with a marble foyer and elegant finishes. The Barrack Street branch, aimed at the riff raff applying for UIF, is grimy and understaffed.

What makes this stark contrast so irksome is the proximity to parliament, so one passes silky-suited members of the house on the surrounding streets, who clearly spend more on said-suits than this former high school principal is drawing per month in UIF, let alone what the elderly man next to me is likely to claim.  No linen table cloths for the lunch tables of the maintenance court dependants or the confused populace at Home Affairs. No lunch for the unemployed! I wonder whether they promenade down among the voters and remember why they are there.

However, for the most part, the systems do chug along. My new ID, sans horrible eighties hair duly appeared and my UIF does show in my account regularly. I suppose there are no easy ways to handle the volumes of people these institutions must process, even though my daughter’s wisdom teeth may well have pierced her cheeks and gone to apply for their own passports before we get an appointment for surgery and I continue to wait patiently for justice from the justice department. I have learnt how to be a ‘good citizen.’

I’ll take it up with Moses.

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