“Are you sure you want to to do this?” Brian asked.
My husband and I just arrived at the South African consulate to get me a visitor’s visa. It was only a few minutes after seven, but there were already 200 people waiting outside the gate. A commotion broke out in the middle of the street as we got off the car. Here and there men were shouting, pushing, and taunting each other. This chaotic scene is what prompted Brian to ask me.
Words fail me, but I can definitely say it’s an experience we don’t want to go through again. As a holder of a Philippine passport I have applied for visas to the US (when people used to queue the night before), Germany, Canada, China, Pakistan, India, and Nigeria — but nothing beats this. We had an idea it’s going to be crazy, based on other people’s comments and blog posting. Nonetheless, we already paid for our tickets, accommodation, and rental car …
“We better go before I change my mind,” I replied.
At the center of the fracas is a big muscular guy holding a cane stick. Some were trying to placate him, others seem to be egging him on. Minutes later he emerged minus the stick and his shirt, challenging others to a brawl. Then a soldier showed up and made everyone scatter over to the other side of the street by brandishing his firearm.
We soon learned that there were separate queues for men and women, and luckily for me the first woman I struck a conversation with was familiar with the process, and was holding the sign up list. Although there were less than ten women around I was actually number 30 on the list.
At around eight more women showed up and queued according to the list.
“The women are definitely smarter than the men,” my husband observed.
Of course some men tried to mosey over and nonchalantly stand with us, until the soldier yelled at them to get to the other side of the street. One guy told my new acquaintance that she looked familiar, and she just rolled her eyes.
Although there were signs everywhere that touts are not allowed it was obvious that some of the people there are not legitimate applicants. There were a couple of vendors with photocopiers and computer printers. One guy was walking around with a stapler, offering to staple documents. There were also shoeshine boys, and guys offering their value cards.
The payment of visa fees is done by depositing money in biometric value cards through banks. We did this the day before. But because I didn’t have a Nigerian ID like a driver’s license, it was Brian who put his thumbprint on the value card. Which posed a new dilemma for us, because the men’s queue was broken up.
“It’s alright,” we were told, “when it’s time for you to pay, they will let your husband in to enter his thumbprint.” And that’s how some enterprising individuals are able to offer their value cards for applicants who do not have any.
As it got closer to 9 am, opening time, the number of women began to swell, too. And they all tried to cut in front of me! At exactly nine the guards opened the gates, and all hell broke loose again as the men started to push their way in. The first 25 women got in, then they let some men in, and then started escorting out half of them either because it was not their turn yet or their papers were not in order. More yelling and pushing by the gate. There were two soldiers with firearms now, plus about six security guards.I held on to Brian, but when they let the next batch of women go in Brian nudged me to go right in.
So I finally got in the waiting area, which has about 60 seats all occupied. I didn’t realize this was the queue, so I just stood in the back. When the line began to move, I found myself at the back end, 2-3 rows behind the women I was next to earlier, grrrrrr. But at least Brian managed to get in, and it was very reassuring to have him close by. That is until he got bored and kept checking my paperwork.
So we got in at 9:30 am with about 50 people ahead of me in the queue, and by noontime I was already halfway with 24 before me. Of course this does not mean that the line moved efficiently. People still kept cutting in and it was exasperating to see some enter and walk up the counter, including two uniformed cops, then getting away with it even though the people in my queue were vocal with their displeasure. Everyone there was supposed to have plane tickets, letters of invitation or hotel receipts, and also supposed to be applying for themselves. But there were individuals who carried too many forms, and one tried to cut in more than once.
The supervisor came out and addressed everyone. I thought he said “who’s counting here?” He picked two people at random and checked their papers. Then he saw Brian and demanded to know what he was doing. The people behind me began to laugh, and they explained to me that the supervisor was asking who was “touting.” Yeah, Brian — the only white person in that place — is a tout.
But my turn came eventually, and the whole process of showing my papers and paying the fee only took 15 minutes! So after eight hours we finally got out at 3 pm.
We’ll make sure we’ll enjoy this trip to Cape Town — after what we went through just to get a visa.