Dear Mr High Commissioner,
Let me introduce myself. I’m a South African citizen living in the United Kingdom. I am one of thousands of South Africans who have chosen to live abroad despite my love for my birth country. I hold dual citizenship. I am a businesswoman, a blogger, a journalist.
I am the very definition of the people you serve here in this United Kingdom.
I have had many dealings with Consular Services and South Africa House over my 16 years in London. Highlights have been: the Save the Rhino dinner; Jock of the Bushveld film; PJ Powers concert; South African Shakespeare play launch; voting in the general elections.
I have spent many hours in amicable queues to apply for a passport renewal, fingerprints and permission to hold dual nationality. I’ve even gone along for ‘fun’ to help a friend with a baby passport application. Happy times are always spent with a coffee in hand, surrounded by South Africans.
So what exactly is my complaint?
“They seek him here, they seek him there, those French they seek him everywhere,” complains Emmuska Orczy of the elusive Scarlet Pimpernel.
My cry is similar.
When applications do not go according to plan, when delays occur, when papers are lost, or questions need to be answered, where oh where can these servants of the people be found?
Let me take you on the journey I’ve been on…
Four years ago, I married an Englishman in my home village on the South African Wild Coast. I came back a ‘Mrs’ and duly applied for a change of name on my South African passport from Consular Services. At the same time I applied for my unabridged marriage certificate.
The same week, I applied for a name change in my British passport with Her Majesty’s Passport Office.
Unsurprisingly, my new British passport arrived by courier 10 days later – Pimlico is only a few miles away of course!
For my new South African passport, I was prepared to wait (I was told 4 months).
I DID wait.
I waited for 2 years! My unabridged marriage certificate took another 18 months.
During my 3.5 year document-wait I discovered that it is nearly impossible for ordinary South African citizens abroad, to speak to the very people placed here to serve us – our diplomats and consular officials.
Six months after my applications in January 2014, I began my quest for answers.
I made some startling discoveries.
The South Africa House website is beautifully laid out and colourful with interesting profiles and abundant information about services. However, contact information given is an exercise in subterfuge.
- The ‘Contact’ page contains a map showing the location of SA House in Trafalgar Sq. Thank you, but I was looking for an online form.
- There is a message on both phone and website about the “high volume of calls” and asks for my patience.
- An email address is given as an alternative contact, but I have to say that I never received a single reply to emails I sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
- It’s impossible to get hold of anyone by telephone. The numbers given on the website are answered by Siri South Africa and will lead you on a merry dance around your number keypad and then suddenly the call will drop or you will hear the magic words “your call is being forwarded” and the phone will proceed to ring ‘til the nguni cows come home.
- A fax number is provided. I’m sorry to say that I did not test this out as I no longer have the technology for this!
Thwarted by telephonic and electronic contact methods, I began to pay visits to Consular Services. The window for visits is between 8:45-12:45hrs. The guard at the door is friendly and will show you to a booth where a friendly person will tell you your fortune.
In my case: “I’m sorry, your passport and marriage certificate have not arrived. We will send a reminder to Pretoria. Thank you for your patience.”
I realised that as an ordinary citizen I’d exhausted all my options. It was time to bring out the journalist in me. Perhaps, I thought, some good could come from this? I would interview a key person at SA House and find out how best to get answers? I would do this for the sake of my elusive applications, and for my fellow Anglo-Africans.
With rose-tinted glasses, and a save-the-world attitude I planned for my interview.
SAPeople commissioned me to write a positive piece explaining the pressure that Consular officials face as they serve South African citizens. I would empathise with their long distance relationship with Pretoria, as documents are ferried back and forth every day. I would get assurances that, indeed, the staff at our High Commission, want to hear from us and are eager to help.
That was how I began.
Sadly I write this letter instead.
I write this letter because you refuse to acknowledge me.
I contacted your press officer, who is on maternity leave. I tapped my journalist friends for contacts and found their telephone numbers no longer existed. I hounded my DA Abroad friend who gave me a couple of email addresses, but they couldn’t help me with gaining an interview. I contacted Brand South Africa who tried to help with an email address for the DHC, but he did not answer my emails.
Countless emails went back and forth.
Finally, I turned up at South Africa House cap-in-hand. There I spent a quiet and pleasant 30 minutes in the beautifully decorated reception explaining my case and asking to be seen by someone, anyone.
Like all my dealings with the High Commission, the person who came to meet me was friendly. She warned me that no interview was assured, and gave me another email address to which I could send my interview questions. I did. There was no reply. Of course.
I am forced to conclude that the South African High Commission is, in fact, not interested in listening to, reassuring or even talking to the very South Africans they are sworn to serve in the UK.
P.S. I eventually received my passport and unabridged marriage certificate because I got hold of two email addresses at Consular Services (through my DA Abroad friend) and emailed two poor civil servants almost weekly – I positively hounded them. I’m not proud of this.