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Sat Jun 25 14:16:39 CAT 2016

The Big Read: Adrift in the public service cosmos

Tom Eaton | 20 January, 2016 00:38
Tom Eaton. File photo
Image by: Twitter.com/TomEatonSA

Three minutes. That's how long it took Home Affairs to process my passport application on Friday. The efficiency disoriented me. Mainly because I'd been queuing for five hours.

I'll spare you the story about the One Queue for the One Person at the One Desk. Actually, that's the whole story. That's why it took me an hour to get off the pavement and into the building.

I also won't tell you about the poster they've stuck up on every square inch at Home Affairs, because I still don't know what it means. It's a picture of a rusty clock with the words, "When the rate of change outside exceeds the rate of change inside, the end is in sight." What? Is it about grilling cheese, where you want the outside to be nice and brown but the inside must still be runny? Is it possible that Home Affairs' mission statement is a snackwich? Actually, given what I witnessed over those five hours, it might be.

As for how it took me two hours to pay for my application, well, I can't tell you that because I can't remember most of it. But I can remember what happened next.

It was just after 11 in the morning and I was watching a bead of sweat. It was slowly gathering on the back of the neck of the man in front of me, and I was wondering how big it could get before it ran down into his shirt collar. But I never got to see it trickle because then .

At first it was just a ripple of alarm, moving through us like a gust through leaves. But soon it became a word: "Offline".

The System was Down.

I don't know how the information spread at first, because there was no announcement from any of the officials, at least nothing involving human words. Luckily for us, though, their body language spoke volumes. And the way they sighed happily, slumped into their chairs and started grazing on muffins told us that our afternoon had just been shot to hell. Babies began to wail.

A few in the queue become indignant. Poor fools. They still didn't understand. They still didn't know where they were.

They got up and marched away to the One Queue. But they soon returned, ashen faced and shaking.

"You can leave," one whispered, "but if you leave you have to start the whole process again." They sat down quietly, and didn't speak again. They had learned.

Half an hour passed. More muffins. An hour. Noon. The babies were no longer crying: in this desert of time, they had aged into teenagers and were now lolling across three chairs and telling their parents that they hated them.

Two hours. The old people fanned their faces with pieces of paper and waited for death.

Nobody noticed when the clerk stood up. When she asked for our attention, only a few people turned to look. The rest ignored her. She was a mirage; a trick of the neon light; a hallucination conjured by the stale air. Nobody was coming. Nobody would ever come.

But she was real, and she had brought word about the System. The System, she said, was online. We blinked back at her. Yes, she said, it was working. Maybe. Nobody was sure. It was important not to get excited. False hope could be worse than despair. That was when people did reckless things, like trying to hike out alone to get help, or making lunch plans. But, she said softly, there was a chance that the System was online again. They were going to try to process a few more applications, and if they failed, well . She flapped her hand, palm up to palm down and back again, and sat down.

It was a gesture of total surrender, her hand transformed into a lotus flower drifting down the endless river of life, sometimes going this way, sometimes that. It asked: Which of us really knows anything? Who would try to plan a life when all is chance?

In that moment I was filled with the great calm that comes from giving up; the peace of Government that passeth all understanding. I felt part of the vast beating heart of the civil service, and I understood that my application would either be processed or it wouldn't, but that either way bureaucrats would have their muffins and go home at 4pm.

Just then I felt I was ready to wait for days, weeks, years, a lifetime. All would unfold in its own time.

And just as I was ready to leave everything behind and surrender my soul to Home Affairs, the computers woke up.

They called my number.

180 seconds later I was done.

I walked, blinking, into the afternoon sun. Three minutes. Five hours.

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