The smell of vrot banana

Jeremy Gordin on what a simple task, liketrying to get a book delivered from overseas, says about the state of SA

It’s noon, Tuesday, and as I write this, NPA boss Shaun Abrahams, with whom I feel some affinity – neither of us seems very smart and we both need to have our eyebrows braided – Abrahams has summonsed Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan as well as former SARS director Ivan Pillay and former Tax Commissioner Oupa Magashula. The rand has of course tanked and “economists are warning of dire consequences”.

This being the case, the tale I want to tell is indeed a “little” story – minor, insignificant, trivial. It is particularly insignificant because I am not a business person in any way, shape or form – the significance of which will become clear in a moment. But bear with me; and let’s reflect on the possibility of “little” stories perhaps opening a window on “larger” ones – crossing over, so to speak, from private to more public experience.

One of my goals as a semi-retired old fart is to start walking the walk about a certain dissertation. To this end I order a number of books from a certain on-line organization known as Amazon. I bring in these books via Amazon’s express service, i.e. by courier, which is by any standard pretty expensive.   

Why do I do this? First, I am a chronically tardy individual and need certain books yesterday. Second, I once used the services of the SA post office, which was much less expensive. But our post office – notwithstanding the rhetoric of one Mark Barnes – is no more. It has ceased to be, it is bereft of life; it is an ex-post office. I was in one of the “better branches” the other day and a little old lady (there’re a few left) asked for a postage stamp. The clerk looked at her as though she’d requested a condom. In short, a few years’ back my books started not arriving – or taking six months to do so.

However, dear readers, it is alleged that some of my dear country people have been wont to abuse the “system” – and to bring in goods that they then re-sell. That’s SARS’ story anyway; it could just be that SARS is looking around for all the revenue they can scrounge – for reasons we understand only too well. Consequently, if as a private individual you bring in an item above a certain value (R500 I believe), on more than three separate occasions, the item is flagged on the system at OR Tambo (ORT) – and guess what?

You have to apply to SARS for an import permit – even if you are merely an old codger who merely wants an obscure book on Aristotle (a dead white man, after all).

This is where the fun began for me last Friday. The courier company said: “You need an import permit now. We’ll send you the relevant forms – all you need are those forms, nothing else – and you can apply on line or at any SARS office.” Being a naturally cautious sort of fellow, I checked. This took about six phone calls to the SARS call centre – from which I finally established that you have to go in person to either Alberton SARS or the SARS at OR Tambo (ORT). Nowhere else.

What were the hours, I wondered. Oh, I was told, at the airport SARS operates 24/7; well, 8/7 anyway; the business of customs and excise is a serious one and we do not sleep at weekends. Okay, I asked, where precisely at ORT is the SARS office dealing with import permits? (It’s not to be found on line by the way.) No one at the call centre knew the address, or directions, to the SARS ORT office. By the way, everyone was impeccably polite – they must have done a course during Gordhan’s day. But no one knew where the ORT office was, as I have said, and, as you will read now, no one knew much else besides.

For in the end, early on Sunday morning, I did find the relevant SARS office at ORT – way down Jones Avenue (surely you know Jones Avenue like the back of your hand?), some four kms from the main terminal, next to the state’s “bonded warehouse”. But oh no, import permits were not dealt with during the weekend. Have you lost your marbles, old fellow?

So – having a few prior appointments on Monday, if the state would forgive me – back I went on Tuesday, bright and early. Again, the person who dealt with the permits, and therefore me, was exceptionally pleasant. But there was no way she could accept my forms because there were all sorts of attachments missing: a certified copy of my ID, a tax clearance certificate, a copy of my mobile phone statement (showing I have a bona fide contract?).

Okay, I said, but you’re SARS, surely you have a commissioner of oaths on staff? Well, she said, we’re supposed to have one – but, I’m sorry, we don’t. (Incidentally, the fellow in line before me needed a pen. The “import permit woman” didn’t have one herself – she had herself to borrow from a colleague who refused to let the fellow use it ...)

Of course, I demanded to see the woman’s supervisor with whom I raised a mild ruckus, pointing out that I didn’t even want a bloody import permit, just my book, pointing out that travelling to ORT three times would cost me in petrol and time almost as much as the book (not true, but still), and asking whether I should just send it back to Amazon, collect my refund, tell Amazon how things don’t work in Seffrica (Amazon knows about the post office), and just call it a bloody day.

“Pardon my language,” I said politely, “but this is sheer, plain bureaucratic bullshit. All I want is a book.”

“Well, we don’t make policy,” said the supervisor sourly. So give me Tom Moyane’s phone number and email address, I said; but she wasn’t able to find those.

I haven’t yet told you about how it has become almost impossible to reach ORT from Johannesburg between 6.30am and 9am in less than an hour – the roads and highways have become barely moving parking lots – because there doesn’t seem to be anyone planning traffic flow and all the rest of it. But this piece is getting too long, so I won’t.

So what’s the point? Why tell this not very significant story? My point is that we have long slipped into being a proverbial banana republic. Okay, many of us know this – and many of us say it.

But it’s been really disheartening to learn again just how maladroit, incompetent and hopeless government and administration (of all kinds) have become in this country. And my heart goes out to real business people who have to deal with this kind of bureaucracy day in and day out; and to people who have to deal with similar nonsense at a myriad of other places: housing, education, health...

And, yeah, my heart goes out to the people who have to work in such pusillanimous, dreary departments. A country and a ruling party without leadership or care – in both of which you can smell the vrot banana, which just won’t go away.