When was the last time you read something positive about home affairs? As we prepared this travel edition of Wanted, I remembered reading a tweet by entrepreneur Michael Jordaan about his travails queueing for a passport at home affairs. I wondered at the time if FNB CEOs didn’t get lifetime cheque accounts, and why he wasn’t doing this at his local branch.
The home affairs branch at my local Standard Bank is possibly the only reason I still have my account. With all the troubles I’ve had with home affairs and passports in the past, one thing for sure is that I won’t be complaining about the officials at the Killarney branch in Joburg. In fact, if everyone who worked for the government were as friendly as the people there, we would have very little reason to complain.
The irony is that I got to know them so well because I had to make a few visits, as the online process you have to go through before you visit to have your pictures taken isn’t the easiest to navigate. The language can be a bit vague — such as the front section that implies that you need to provide a signature but without the section being clickable. It took a visit to the branch to work out that this step wasn’t necessary. Same with trying to pay. By the third visit, we were all on friendly terms. Once it was done, it took all of two days for my passport to arrive, and I was set for London. And this wasn’t a freak occurrence.
A friend whose passport had long since expired, with no need to renew it owing to Covid restrictions, was also planning to visit family overseas. She had the same trouble navigating the online application, but, with the benefit of my experience, she knew, for example, to ignore the email that says you must bring a barcoded confirmation letter (it doesn’t exist). Once through that, she was also a happy home affairs customer with a shiny new passport in her hands a couple of days later.
One thing that is noticeable in this (hopefully) post-Covid world is that direct flights to the UK are a lot more expensive than I remember. After two years of disruptions and the closure of busy routes, the airlines have to catch up with their revenue, and, judging by how full the mid-week flight was, customers aren’t protesting.
The travel experience itself was rather strange, but for good reasons this time. It was barely three months since my previous trip to the UK, an unpleasant experience that required PCR tests and a hotel quarantine on the other side. That had become normal, so it felt a bit strange when I checked in for the flight and there was no request to see Covid test results. Vaccine certificate? No need. I told the person checking passports how strange it was that the British authorities, who had imposed two travel bans on South Africa in 2021, now didn’t have any requirements at all. “They are done,” he said.
Until I was seated on the plane, I had this nagging feeling that wouldn’t go away that, along the way, someone would come and say, “Gotcha, you do need that Covid test result after all.” It indeed is a world of extremes, and the red listing of just five months ago feels like a distant nightmare. I’m definitely glad they are done, and long may it last.
• From the May edition of Wanted, 2022.