Officialdom is choking us to death

William Saunderson-Meyer writes on the nightmare of car re-licensing


It’s characteristic of a failing society. As government transparency and accountability decrease, bureaucratic pettiness and red tape increase proportionately.

In days of yore, in those pre-pandemic times when on Heritage Day we still used to gather around the tribal braai fires, the tales would flow thick and fast. Tales of passport snafus, identity document cock-ups, and of deeds office lassitude.

Lockdown and social distancing may have put an end to such mass ritualistic sharing of misery, but have inspired government employees. Clever new ways have been found to shirk work, frustrate the citizenry, and score some bucks on the side.

In Gauteng, Limpopo and the Western Cape motor licence renewal can be done online. In the rest of the country, one has to go in person to a regional licensing office.

Since it was almost impossible to renew motor vehicle licences during the past six months, the authorities sensibly granted a non-penalty renewal extension. This ended on Tuesday.

Those who have not yet renewed will incur late payment costs of 10% a month. One also faces a R1,000 traffic fine if caught driving with an expired disc.

This would seem to be a classic carrot-stick mechanism of the kind employed by administrative agencies everywhere in the world. Except that in South Africa, where state structures are at best creaky and at worst manned by lazy and uncooperative officials, its always a lose-lose situation for the hapless citizen.

To start with, it’s been very difficult to access licensing offices. It’s been a case of turning up and queueing, with the lines in sometimes stretching for hundreds of metres around the neighbourhood.

In some cases, those that officialdom euphemistically terms the “vulnerable”— the halt, the lame and the aged — can telephone to make appointments to renew. The catch is that you could wait until 2022 for a slot. Presuming, also, that your phone call is ever answered.

Official hours of business are, in many cases, only a vague approximation. Offices open and close at the whim of the officials involved. A bit like other essential government operations, like schools and clinics.

When it comes to payment, some facilities accept only cash. While it is understandable that cheques are no longer accepted, inexplicably often neither are bank cards. The notice that all transactions must be in cash are cannily placed so that they can be viewed only when one reaches the front of the queue.

In my district, the licensing office simply shut intermittently for weeks during much of the lockdown. It would then open for a couple of days, only to again close at the insistence of the union, the moment that anyone in the building was diagnosed with Covid-19. The whole building would then be shuttered for 48-hours while it was “sanitised” by an outside cleansing company.

This has been and remains the norm for most public buildings and makes for paralysing inefficiency. The other day I arrived at a police station at midday on a Friday only to find the entrance sealed and to be told that all officers had been sent home, because the commanding officer had caught the coronavirus. This meant that for the entire weekend no crimes could be reported nor assistance offered to victims of crime.

Such “deep cleaning” of buildings is known to be a complete waste of time and resources. There is little medical evidence to support the practice — overwhelmingly, viral transmission has been through the air, not through touching a contaminated surface. One might as well hire a sangoma to sprinkle herbs and chant incantations, for all the practical use it is going to be.

Yet the unions, through wilful ignorance, insist on these elaborate decontamination procedures, affording their members welcome impromptu holidays. And employers, through spinelessness, comply.

In government, it’s also all often part of a scam. As the recently released pandemic emergency fund tender documents show, the “businesses” hired to do the cleansing work at state buildings are very often not registered, are not paying tax, and are charging exorbitant amounts for their pointless efforts.

Motor licensing used to be a simple business. The local licensing authority would send a renewal reminder through the post a month before the licence expired. If there had been no change in ownership, one simply sent off a cheque and the new disc was posted back.

No standing in lines. No inhaling other people’s disease-ridden snotty sneezes and phlegmy coughs.

But renewal reminders are no longer sent out. I’ve had two explanations from the licensing authorities for this: first, that they can’t afford the postage; and second, that it’s pointless since the post office is barely operational and the renewal notices were never delivered in time.

To all these impediments, my local licensing office added its own fiendish twist. To minimise Covid danger, it would process only 30 people a day. This week, it was increased to 80 a day “following extensive consultations with stakeholders both internally and externally”.

People start queueing from dawn and hundreds each day find that they’ve made a wasted trip. While standing in line for hours they, of course, risk infection.

According to figures released this week, some 700,000 vehicles nationwide are now unlicensed from the lockdown period. While that means that a cash-strapped state will rake in hundreds of millions in welcome extra revenue from penalties, the societal costs in wasted time and needless journeys is probably double or triple that.

And the licensing debacle is echoed throughout our officialdom. According to the World Bank annual survey on ease of doing business, South Africa ranked 32 out of 190 countries when it launched its index in 2008. By last year it had sunk to 84th position.

Nothing, from starting a business to getting an identity document is a simple or efficient process. I’ve registered my staff anew three times over the past four years with the Unemployment Insurance Fund and not one’s details are yet reflected on the UIF computers.

Yet government workers are proportionately paid more generously than their private sector equivalents, they have absolute job security, and they invariably secure above-inflation salary increases. This year, with the economy in a kamikaze dive to oblivion, local authorities nationwide are budgeting for a 6% wage increase.

Not that the private sector is much better. Something simple like opening a bank account will easily swallow a morning without a burp. Something out of the ordinary, like changing the signatories on a trustee account, can take months and many visits.

That’s not only because of government regulations but because the banks have added into the equation a mass of their own, largely pointless, box-ticking procedures. These change so often that their own staff don’t know what the hell is going on and — as fraud and corruption levels show — have little or no preventative effect.

Beware of all these officious bastards. It’s not just that they are infuriating, it’s that they clog the arteries of administration and commerce. They’re downright dangerous to the health of the nation.

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