top of page

The Quicksand of Bureaucracy

Mindfulness Practice for Foreign Nationals in RSA

I love South Africa. I want to stay here. I’ll get permanent residency.

I look into the application process. I can either apply under the Extraordinary Skills category, or as a Spouse of an SA national. My ego likes the idea of extraordinary skills. I have my PhD from Wits in a cardboard tube, but realise that I will have to get my overseas certificates accredited by SITA. This is bound to take months and cost a fortune, and the word on the street is that this is a difficult category to qualify under. I speak to my ego and ask for its understanding. I’ll be a wife; maybe not so helpful for the nation, but helpful for my husband. But now I have to wait 5 years after marrying to prove that this is real, not a marriage of convenience to be allowed the privilege of living here. I practice patience, which is not my strongest quality. I wait 5 years.

Three easy steps, they say. If only…

The magic date arrives and I try to apply online. A few years ago, the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) realised that they could not cope with the number of visa applications. They were taking months. So they employed the services of VFS Global, a for-profit company that helps governments to process visas. It still takes months, but there is a charge for their services (R1350) and the additional layer of the inhuman computer interface. I set up a username and password, and look through the website to see how to apply. I teach a yoga class. I come back to the website which says, “You can only use one login at a time and hence need to log out from existing login to log in again for a new account.” (that is not made up!) It sounds like the rules of cricket, where you need to be in to go out, and others are trying to get you out to get an innings. I send the screen shot to the helpline and a couple of days later am told to close my browser windows and wait for some time and then try to log in again. It doesn’t sound hopeful. But I fiddle around and something works. I am in.

I have to tell the computer where I have lived since I was 18 years old. Oh my goodness. I start with the UK. I move to Botswana. I quietly leave out Thailand. I now come to South Africa, but low and behold, there is no ‘South Africa’ in the drop-down menu. What to do? I email the helpline again. A few days later I am told that it is the ‘Republic of South Africa’. I feel stupid, and practice self-compassion. These inhuman interfaces make us all feel stupid.

I complete the application. It’s long. My parent’s names and addresses, my in-laws names and addresses, my shoe size, bra size, everything that could possibly be needed – I type in. I’m ecstatic. I’ve done it. I jump around a little and practice gratitude. I then pay online. Beep beep. The R1350 goes out of my account in seconds. The computer tells me that if I am not automatically returned to the home page, I must log in again in one hour. I try to beat the system and log in in 10 minutes, but the payment doesn’t show. I teach a yoga class. I log back in, and whoopee, it shows. I can now schedule an appointment, except that none show up. I email the helpline to say that there are no available appointments. In two days time they email back and say there are appointments but maybe I must try another browser. I try again with the same browser. I book for a few weeks time.

Now I need to race around with my checklist. Get a new X-ray and medical certificate. I got these 7 years when I moved here on a study permit. If I had TB now, I would have caught it in South Africa. That doesn’t matter, I mustn’t be sick as a permanent resident no matter where I got sick. Medical aid doesn’t cover this as it’s for DHA – I pop out R500 for the x-ray and R300 for the medical consultation. I feel peeved, but practice acceptance and gratitude that I have the money as someone just paid me for yoga.

Next up, police clearance for South Africa. I got one of these 7 years ago too, but need a new one in case I have been sucked into criminal activities since then. I go to Brixton at 12.45. I have to rush upstairs to pay R98 before the finance office closes for lunch. I come back down with my receipt and get covered in sticky black ink for fingerprinting. I’m sent to wash at the standpipe in the car park. I could meet a few criminals here and get some top tips. I decide not to, and go back in with a smile and smudgy hands. It’s Christmas time. The clearance would normally take 10 days, but I should allow a month because of all the holidays. I don’t have a month before the scheduled appointment, but I decide to trust in the benevolence of the system. I know I’m chancing it.

I’ve done it, I’ve done it. I’ve printed out the appointment letter and the application form. It’s an online system, but needs to be printed on paper. I’ve got the letter from my husband to say that he will look after me. I’ve printed out the bank statement to show that I have money to survive. I don’t have TB. I’ve got the doctor’s letter, which states that I am not an imbecile. I’ve got the letter from myself to say that I will employ myself in my own company and that I am the only person in the country who is qualified to work in the designated role. I sign it myself, on my own letterhead. Can that possibly be ok? I’ve even got the police clearance. I’ve got a great big fat wad of paperwork, to accompany this hi-tech, globally utilised online computer system.

I drive 40 minutes up the highway to Rivonia. I go to where the VFS office was when I last applied for a temporary permit. The security guard says sorry. My heart begins to beat loudly. Where is the office? It’s still there, but you must go round the back door. It crosses my mind that it might be easier to do everything round the back door. Many people do and still seem able to live here. But no. I’ve got this far. I’ll do it properly. I go round the back and walk up two flights of stairs. The whole world is up there. People from all different continents, countries, cultures and colours. Well, not many white people, actually. I see signs to a Premium Lounge, for which you pay extra and can have coffee. I assume the white people are in there, with their consultants. I’m determined to experience what everyone else must experience for R1350.

I am given a ticket saying HAG92, then frisked and beamed with a magic wand. I make it through security. Later I find my penknife in my bag. But they didn’t notice. And I didn’t use it despite what came next. Mindfulness is handy sometimes. I see rows and rows of metal sloping seats, cooled by air conditioning. This can’t be too bad, or does it mean I’ll be here for hours and may need to keep my cool. I look at the screen: HAG21. I’ll have turned into an old hag by the time my number comes up. I try to sit on a seat. I slide off with my back in a C-curve.

Those slippy chairs designed to cause back ache

I perch on the edge with my documents behind me, trying to maintain an upright posture so that I can ‘meditate while I wait’. It could be a slogan. I slide off again. I go and sit cross-legged on the floor at the back of the room. The security guard looks at me quizzically. I chant ‘Om Mane Peme Hung’ to develop compassion for myself and the other 100 people stuck in the airtight room. That’s enough for him to leave me be.

After an hour my number comes up. I prance to the desk with a smile. I stand on tiptoes to see the women behind. She is almost hidden under the counter. I hand over what I am asked. Why is your name Draper-Clarke? Your husband’s name is Draper. That’s the surname I chose when I got married. I’ll have to ask my supervisor if it’s ok. My palms go sweaty. The supervisor agrees that I am allowed a strange double-barrelled surname if I want one. Where is your police clearance from the UK and Botswana? I feel my chest tightening. Here’s my Botswana one, from 2010, but I didn’t know I needed a UK one. Your Botswana one has expired and you need a UK one. My throat dries. Go home and get them. Then book again. And anyway, your temporary residence permit will have expired by the time the permanent residency is processed because it takes 8-10 months. So go and fill in one of those forms, pay again, and come back another day. My legs feel like lead. I drag them out of the air-conditioning, down the stairs, out the back door and into the car park. The car park machine gives me the same amount of change as I put in. I try and count my blessings. R4 for a 3 hour wasted journey. It’s not all bad.

I take a couple of days to recuperate and try again. I am obsessed with doing the temporary visa form perfectly. The screen asks for First Name. I type in Lucy. It asks for Surname: I type in Draper-Clarke. Although I don’t need them yet, I am getting ahead and apply for a UK police clearance through the ACRO website. It’s R800. It’s ok. Someone paid me for a mindfulness course. They’ll send it through the post. Is that safe? I practice trust again. Or is that stupidity? Should I have paid another R800 for the courier service? I phone the Botswana consulate and am told to go for more finger printing. I try Norwood. They don’t really want to help me as I don’t live nearby, but its quiet apart from the road accident reports from Louis Botha. She helps me and I’m covered in goo again. Here they have a bathroom to wash in, but no soap. I go to the Botswana consulate and greet in Setswana. I am received fairly warmly. It’ll take a month if I’m lucky. There’s no SMS system. I must keep phoning to see when it arrives. I can do that. I’ll take a few deep breaths each time I call, and not let my mind spin out into ruminating thoughts of lost documents.

It’s VFS day again. I do a morning intention practice and choose the word ‘acceptance’ as my support for the day. I’ve also been on a Green Tara retreat, so know that I can pray to Tara for swift help, even with worldly difficulties. She cares for our material lives as well as our spiritual ones.

Green Tara – swift to help with all problems

I know the routine now. I go in the right door. I don’t take my penknife. I get my HAG number and chuckle like a crone. I wait an hour and do mantra, “Om Tare Tuttare Ture Soha.” What could go wrong today? It’s sunny, I’m filled up on joy after a weekend retreat. I have my acceptance intention to sustain me. I am called to the white shiny counter. Where is your middle name? The form didn’t ask for it and I wanted to do everything just right. But you need it. Go to Jetline and fill in another form, and pay another R1350. I’ll hold your HAG number for 15 minutes. I’m disappointed, but acceptance is my mantra. I race across the road. I fill in the form in 2 minutes. I can do this. I can beat the deadline. I pay and my phone beeps. It has gone out immediately. Computer tells me to wait an hour for the online system to reflect the payment. I trust that the VFS lady can’t possibly stick to her 15 minute deadline. She must know about this 1 hour glitch in the system. Surely? I have a coffee. I find a bathroom. I keep checking my phone to see if my payment has registered. After 50 minutes it does. I now have to schedule an appointment before the system allows me to print my forms. There are none available today. I take a chance and book for 3 days time. Acceptance.

I go back round the back. The security guard smiles and lets me in. I go back to the counter but my TRR number doesn’t show on the system because of my appointment date. I am sent to the supervisor. She rings the IT guys in India. She is beautiful and kind, and I trust that she will help me. She does, but it takes 2 hours. I am back at the counter and submit everything. There’s a bubbling of joy, and I’ve got to know a few other people who also missed out their middle names. We go for biometrics. Did you get the short grumpy lady or the one with her hair up? The short, grumpy one. Be careful. Don’t move the chair or you’ll get shouted at. We share techniques for working the system. We are all queued up at the refund counter. The refund assistant won’t assist me as I paid online and don’t have a bank slip. Acceptance starts to slip away from me. My mouth tightens. My heart beats. My face reddens. I go back to my saviour, the supervisor. She tells me the secret email address that I can send my proof of payment to. I pass this around to my collaborators, even though its secret. Everyone wants to go home now, they don’t seem to care anymore. I am finally submitting my refund application and the first assistant comes up, the one who took all my paperwork. She is looking horrified. I hear the word ‘voes’ – be careful, she’s angry, they tell each other. She shows me my speedily submitted form.

I’ve typed in the wrong passport number. Acceptance evaporates. It’s worse when it is your own fault than someone else’s. I am drowning in the quicksand. The more I struggle the further I am pulled down. I’ll have to start over again. I get in the car and weep.

3 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page