Wednesday, September 10, 2008

waiting in lines

I believe in repetition. And recently I've been hearing about, from multiple sources, and experiencing a bit myself, the time-honored tradition of waiting in lines. Thousands of South Africans do this every day: at Home Affairs offices; for electricity, paraffin, and cooking gas; at ATMs; you name it, there's a queue.

While on our church speaking-tour in the states, we introduced Mthatha along these lines, that is, as a place where people wait endlessly in lines. Because it is a center of an under-serviced population, a lone city serving a vast rural population, its few services can scarcely keep up. And so the lines.

While residing here over August, a colleague from a more affluent South African city noticed the line for electricity in town at the infamous Total Garage, nearly spilling as it regularly does onto the street amidst the bustle of mini-bus taxis themselves queuing for petrol, as well as parallel lines for lottery tickets and paraffin fuel. A couple of days later, a friend reported that she had waited in line from 8 am to 2 pm while trying to make funeral preparations for her mother who had just passed away, another casualty of AIDS.

Yesterday at the post office--where people queue for various government grants, vehicle licenses, and to cash checks, aside from "conventional" mail services--we waited in a modest line on the second floor for an authorized photocopy of a birth certificate. One person after we had received what we came for, the electricity went out. "Yoh, Yoh", breathed the attendant, shaking her head. Aside from relief that we had been spared the inconvenience of those behind, my mind went to our friend and her six-hour queue. What if one has made the all-day commitment to wait in line, hoping to apply for or turn in important documentation, only to have go out the electricity on whose power the machines are powered which produce the documentation which will help bury your loved one? Generators you say? And these exist, though not everywhere. Electricity aside, there is also the reality of people waiting in long queues, uninformed and therefore unarmed of the things they really need to complete the desired transaction, sent away to yet another line. And tomorrow they may wait there. In the heat. Or the cold, depending. All day. Perhaps to hear a different story from a different attendant from this different service which really has no idea what the official policy of the other service their service is supposed to be working with actually is.

Day-after-tomorrow, anyone?


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