The Outsiders Part 5

This section of the continuing expose of those whose lives are lived solely on the street (with the odd interlude in custody or a guest house/motel) examines the relationship with the authorities who are in charge of legal documentation. This is either a South African identity card (was a book before) or a document granting asylum though there are Resident Permits and Business/Study Visas among others. For most of the street people, it is either a granted asylum or an identity card (much more difficult) that they apply for as they have neither the money, ability or fit the criteria (resident for x years etc.) to apply for the others. Either way, it involves those requiring them to deal with the Department of Home Affairs, colloquially known as ‘Horror Affairs’. The desperation of those on the street to have any form of recognised and legitimate paperwork so that the facets of life we all take for granted like bank accounts, phone numbers as well as the ability to purchase goods like mobile phones, televisions, transport like scooters, cars and vans are open to them is very tangible. Additionally, how do you rent accommodation no matter how basic (rooms from ZAR 900.00 per month) without signing a lease? (You end up without legal documentation paying through the nose for squalid, unsafe, and downright dangerous accommodation and constantly face the threat (more often than reported) of illegal eviction.) Obviously credit is another matter entirely as this as for any of us takes time to build (credit rating, etc.). However simple things like water, electricity and council tax require proof of identity. Without this officially sanctioned proof, none of these things are accessible as you don’t exist! So you have to rely on the black market where only cash is accepted and there are no warranties or guarantees existing.(Few buyers ask, being happy if they at least get the instructions included).In South African Law is the legal term “Caveat emptor’ which translates as ‘Let the Buyer Beware’ so therefore any form of legal redress is impossible, be it criminal or civil, since you cannot prove who you are using the accepted system of verification.

This existence comes at price. The price to be paid is not only financial but includes levels of emotional trauma and physical discomfort/attack because the very process of applying for legal recognition is a veritable minefield to be trodden very carefully.

"...For street people, the first problem is having enough money to travel to where the Department of Home Affairs is ....

In each Province of South Africa, there is a Regional Department of Home Affairs and often several smaller ones with lesser abilities regarding the issuance of permits. They all will do the necessary administration but if there are complications they are exceptionally slow and often it will be referred on to one of the main centres. However, for a first application for asylum, the main department is almost mandatory and the one fraught with the most problems. It certainly deals with an enormous volume of people seeking asylum or renewing existing ones on a daily basis and it is normal to hear many different nationalities speaking their own languages. For street people, the first problem is having enough money to travel to where the Department of Home Affairs is situated followed by having the money to survive for however many days it takes to apply and undergo the processing before being given the official stamp of approval. Bearing in mind you still have to pay the ‘fees’ that are paid upfront for the whole process to commence. This means time away from earning, which is not possible if you don’t have savings as few of the people have. There are some charities and NGO’s/NPO’s that help with this process by providing fee money and transport but they are few and far between and their waiting lists are very long indeed. Not one step in this process in South Africa is straightforward because the appearance of corruption in the many guises and levels of officialdom shifts it completely. Since in today’s world we measure success as doing an action in the quickest possible time, money enters the process and changes everything. (See Business Today from Wednesday the 13/06/2022 in an article titled ‘Home Affairs Issued Thousands of Fraudulent Visas and Permits’)

Yes, the work is done correctly and straightforwardly without corruption for the applicants but the process itself as opposed to finishing in one or two days, can last much, much longer with the need to return to the Department of Home Affairs offices, meaning yet more expense and loss of income. It is not confined to only those who work directly for the Department itself but the security guards (usually outsourced private companies), the Police Service and of course, all those whose living is made off the backs of other people’s problems, which they will solve for you for a fee.We will take as an example, a place we visited several times both officially and incognito, Marabastad Department of Home Affairs in Pretoria.

Situated in the less affluent and far more dangerous Pretoria West area, it is not a place to be outside, especially if alone, after dark. The opening in the morning of the Offices is absolute mayhem. The sheer volume of people attending is staggering with many days in the month not having less than 2000 people seeking asylum, re-issue of documentation, visas, and other matters dealt with by the Department. Opposite the Offices is a large piece of vacant land and in order to be ready first thing in the morning to queue up to gain entry to the Offices, many people sleep overnight on this land as it is expensive and not easy to obtain shelter close by. Apart from the usual guest houses (ZAR 250.00 per day for a room for 2 people), there are a few places renting beds (about 6 to a room) in clean and safe houses/apartments at ZAR 100.00 per person for the night only. The guests in each room for the most part are friendly and show great courtesy to each other. Often they are quite helpful with information. This changes the following day when it becomes imperative to lodge your application (let alone have it finalised) as the number of people make it a question of who can be at the front of the line. However, sleeping on the vacant land overnight is dangerous. Thieves, muggers, and assailants lurk in the shadows and surrounding streets waiting for an opportunity to pounce. There are always victims every night and often the Ambulance Service as well as the Police (SAPS) attend. So people gather in groups or make quick alliances to protect themselves, sometimes with the thieves unwittingly, while makeshift fires spring up all over the place to provide warmth against the cold night and provide visibility for protection. Only the outer edges of the land are lit by street lights, the rest is dark. Since there are no toilet facilities available, the call of nature forces people to find empty spaces where they are vulnerable to attack.Even in summer, the nights are bitterly cold as the area is 2000 metres above sea level. If you rely on public transport (trains, buses, and taxis), you do not carry blankets etc. with you as they are overly cumbersome and limit your movement. It is cold and people scavenge for plastic sheets/bags to sleep on and cover themselves with, so inevitably the sellers of the large black plastic rubbish bags do a good trade. Yes, the Police do patrol but given the number of people and the size of the area, it is really more about reassuring the public with visibility. There are, of course, vendors of food, drinks and pens, paper and knowhow. In the morning, the real fun begins. First to arrive are the vendors as hot coffee and a snack/breakfast are very much in demand and in any case, lunchtime soon arrives and most people want to eat. Then the ‘agents’ send in their people to assess who needs help with their applications and if financially able, fast tracking. None of which is officially sanctioned in any way by the Department itself. At this point, groups of different nationalities gather and the sound of many languages fills the air. The majority of the people are ‘working class’ or more exactly, poor. Many of them hail from foreign countries in Africa but Bangladesh, Pakistan, and South American countries also play a part.So languages speak loudly and group together as most of the people are seeking asylum, most often for economic reasons, though many are plagued because the countries they come from do not have the same minimal democracy we all have in common and dissension as well as intertribal enmity still surfaces. Add to this the sheer day-to-day drudgery of their survival at a defined minimum level of subsistence and escape becomes the only way forward or out of danger from other members of your own public. Obviously, countries like South Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia and other war torn regions on the African continent also provide asylum seekers and political opponents of the regime in power. The Francophone nations speak French, East Africa provides Swahili, North Africa gives us Arabic, and all the variants as well as the original national languages and dialects of all the nations are heard.

"... The action takes place on the area that was ‘home’ for many of the applicants during the night right in front ...

They are a good target for the ‘agents’ as many do not speak or read English, Afrikaans or any of South Africa’s eleven other official languages and so require help knowing which form to ask for, then help to fill it in, and finally help to make sure it goes to the right person who is supposed to deal with it. They are such masters of the art that they even suggest answers to the questions on the forms as they know the ones which will give a ‘green light’ to the Officials vetting and approving these papers. The cost of the ‘help’ varies depending on not only which service is provided like filling in the forms costs ZAR 350.00 but also translating the document so it can be understood, which costs ZAR 500.00. Obviously, the myriad helpers offer photographic and copying help, which is usually done at a local shop, many of which although having normal trade make the bulk of their income from those having to attend the Department of Home Affairs offices. Other services include direct instant (a wait of one to two hours) contact with the right officials who will fast track your application for asylum, residency, etc. while ensuring that it is dealt with immediately so business is done before 4 PM that day. This will cost several thousand rand depending on the type of legal paperwork needed by the applicant and the purpose of having it. People sell pens, paper, cell phone batteries, airtime, food, clothing, and more and of course, each other. The action takes place on the area that was ‘home’ for many of the applicants during the night right in front and facing the Marabastad Home Affairs buildings, with the main entrance facing the open ground. Admission to the Department’s offices is strictly controlled with locked gates and security guards who strictly enforce public order. It must be noted that while they can be overly zealous, the behaviour of desperate applicants makes their job volatile and potentially dangerous. I and others witnessed instances of a crowd literally trying to force its way in to the enclosed Reception area of the offices, climbing the fences, and assaulting the security guards. The immediate personal circumstances of people leave many in the unenviable position of not having the means (money) to either stay for another day or come back again and it was not uncommon to see some of the applicants not having the money to go home so they then had to spend the next day in Pretoria ‘hustling’ for the train or bus/taxi fare back to where they lived. This leads to constant confrontations with officials of all sorts. Those with money and access to information arrive by car and usually wait for very short periods of time for pre-arranged meetings with the ‘helpful’ agents and their minions. They even have people who will go and purchase and bring food, beverages, or whatever the client desires. The ‘them and us’ division is brought sharply into focus at every Home Affairs Department in South Africa.

"...The use of ‘sjamboks’ or whip like rod/sticks to beat people back from aggressing each other (in response to queue jumping rage, etc.)...

In the meantime ‘officials’ acting on behalf of the Department start to organise the different nationalities into groups, lining them up, and then questioning them on type of application so as to split the group into sections. These officials are both representatives of the department and sub contractors whose brutality is legendary, though again the applicants are as not pure as driven snow and violence is always near the surface. The use of ‘sjamboks’ or whip like rod/sticks to beat people back from aggressing each other (in response to queue jumping rage, etc.) or the officials is not uncommon and neither is the possible threat of this action. The dry and by now littered bare ground becomes hot and unpleasant as the movement of people raises dust,which is further inflamed by bursts of wind. The noise is overwhelming — a babble of tongues and shouts continue for a time until relative order is in place and the people wait patiently in their lines to be called to start the process. Firstly they are checked, verified, and wait to go to the gates. The process is repeated on arrival,on entry, and so on. Being inside does not guarantee you will get to hand in the paperwork duly filled in as many attempts are made to extract a ‘ fee’ to ensure the process until either the applicant gives in and pays or is prepared to wait until its ‘convenient’ for the official to see them. The paying applicants move fairly swiftly in and out having arranged times through their agents returning most often after lunch to collect the final legal paperwork they need. Outside time passes and those still not inside the office complex start to become desperate when the time starts to tick by. Most often little happens past the 4 PM watershed and those not seen will prepare to leave, wait overnight or return the next day. All the while trade goes on with people selling possessions so as to be able to stay overnight and eat or sleep somewhere so the prices paid are often low with many people making a living buying goods to resell the next day in markets and shops locally. Quite large sums of cash are around if the total of all the business done in the place is taken as a whole, which means numerous pickpockets, muggers, street thieves, and con merchants abound with them targeting all the applicants during the day, even if they go to shops or look for ATMs. Most of the crimes are unreported officially since few of those victims can either afford to take the time to go through the official process (Police etc.) or the time out of trying to get their asylum, visa, etc. finalised on the day in question. This makes the people more wary and paranoid because not only are they stressed by the whole process of application, but also the very real likelihood of becoming the victim of a crime. So the idea of a normal day is far removed from the reality. Apart from the children, there are many people literally weeping with frustration, rage, and above all tiredness as there is literally no escape from the heat, the dust, the noise, the dirt and the constancy of people everywhere in a heightened state of emotion.

The name ‘Horror Affairs” for the Department of Home Affairs encapsulates all that those needing its services have to endure to ensure they acquirethe required legal documentation to prove their existence. In itself, the mini local economy that has sprung up around the offices spread out across South Africa provides constant employment and business stability to those who make a living through the provision of services and goods to the people coming to apply for the constitutional provision of legal paperwork. Since the offices of the Home Affairs Department are usually open from Monday to Friday (though we experienced some Saturday openings), the hectically busy working week eases off on the weekend with a very relaxed and friendly atmosphere in the markets, shops, and local area as the residents are not as harassed and distracted by the influx of peoplecoming to the offices.However, by mid Sunday afternoon, the crowds of applicants start to gather, trickling in at first in ones and twos, in preparation for the week’s madness to restart on Monday. Many take the attitude that if you start the process on a Monday, you are more likely to finish it that week, which is true for the majority of those applying for the services Home Affairs offers. So the crowds converge and the criminals and vendors move in as the whole cycle repeats itself and a heady concoction of hope, fear, desperation, and fervent belief once more brings the earth of the vacant land to life.

Safety on the streets of South Africa is by no means assured and with the constant need to survive on a daily basis, the road to ‘legal’ acceptability is arduous indeed for those whose lives are spent living on the street. Yet the wholehearted determination and sheer doggedness they employ to attain the results show that given the chance to improve their lives by joining mainstream society, they will gladly take it and in most cases, will add constructively to the growth of the country and its richly diverse society.

In the next article in the series, The Outsiders, we examine the fact that they also suffer xenophobia and serious racism both for economic and political reasons, events that can and do lead to death and affect the economic stability of the country.

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