The Runaround: A Tale In (Mostly) Two Cities

14 Jun

This post may seem like I’m complaining. And, I guess I am. But I don’t think I can properly tell this story without the complaints.

On the road to obtaining a US visa for a fiancée, there are many obstacles. One thing is certain: it is nowhere near as easy as movies and TV would have you believe for an American to marry a foreigner in the US – specifically the part where the foreigner is in the United States for the purpose of marrying an American. I don’t mind it having many steps or taking a long time, but I do mind instructions being unclear, outdated and/or contradictory.

Furthermore, I have a feeling that countries with efficient public services can ease a lot of the burden imposed by Uncle Sam in this whole process. South Africa is not one of those countries.

There are five main steps to obtaining a fiancée visa for a South African (provided your fiancée was never married before and doesn’t have any children):

  1. Petition to Homeland Security. This is done by the US citizen. Cost: $340, plus shipping and obtaining all the supporting documentation and evidence. When that is approved you can move on to the next steps. This can take up to five months to get approved, but ours was approved in less than three. Yeah – off to a good start!
  2. Application form. Takes about an hour to fill out, but can be done online. Much of the same info is required as the petition, but this time it is from the foreigner. Cost: $350, but isn’t paid until the time of the last step. We were still under three months into this process when we knocked this one out. Good for us!
  3. Obtaining all the proper paperwork. This could be easier. USA’s forms can be unclear and instructions can be outdated, or just plain wrong. The South African Police Service and Department of Home Affairs are slow and (in the case of SAPS) proving to be prone to mistakes. This is where the problems begin. Cost: mostly time and effort (and frustration and gobs of hair you pull out of your own head).
  4. Medical examination. This isn’t a big deal, except there are only two medical offices in the entire country of South Africa authorized by the U.S. consulate to perform this task, and neither are conveniently located to me or my fiancée. Even though Zandy lives in one of the most modern cities in all of Africa, she is required to travel eight hours by bus to get blood tests, x-rays, vaccinations, etc. The bothersome thing for me is that Peace Corps has relationships with lots of medical offices throughout South Africa, and I’m pretty certain many of these places could do the same work. Cost: about $335 (plus expenses to get there and back, and getting a room for a night because it takes two days).
  5. Interview. This is just for Zandy … from what I understand, I can’t even be in the building. She’ll prove that we are getting married for all the right reasons and that she’s cool to reside in the states. This will take place at the US consular office in Johannesburg towards the end of July. Even though there is a consulate in Durban down the road from where Zandy works, she has to take the same eight hour bus trip to do this. So close, and yet so far.

So, what could be so bad with obtaining paperwork? I had to inconvenience family members to complete some less-than-clearly worded forms and dig up some financial records for proof that I and my family won’t let Zandy become the responsibility of the state once she’s on US soil. I guess that isn’t so bad. Especially when compared to our quest for Zandy’s Police Clearance Certificate.

At the beginning of May, Zandy went to the SAPS station nearest to her apartment to get fingerprinted and apply for her Police Clearance Certificate. Unfortunately for her, only certain stations perform this task, and this wasn’t one of them. She was directed to a different station where she was fingerprinted, paid a R59 application fee (about $5.50 USD), and was told to wait three to four weeks.

After three weeks with nothing in the mail, I started to get impatient. The post boxes at her apartment complex are completely open all the time, and I was nervous that even if it made it there, it may not make it into her hands. Four weeks to the day of her submitting it, she called the office in Pretoria that processes this form to get its status. Of course, they couldn’t find it – not a trace. As far as they knew, the paperwork never made it to their office for them to file it.

So, she went back to the police station to try again. She could have argued for the application fee to be waived, but (knowing that would probably be a losing battle) paid again, and instead asked for the completed fingerprints and form for her to mail them herself.

When she got home, she looked at the form. It wasn’t her name on the form. Oh, that’s because it wasn’t her form. It wasn’t any of her details on this form, except it was her fingerprints. The person doing the fingerprinting at the station swapped her form and another person’s right before she took the fingerprints. As soon as you’re done getting your fingerprints taken, you wash your hands while the person doing the prints slips the form into the envelope. By the time she was home and noticed this huge error, that office was already closed. It was Friday. We couldn’t do anything until Monday, except we would already be on that bus to Johannesburg for the medical exam. We decided that since we would be in the Johannesburg/Pretoria area for a few days, we would get the fingerprints done there and hand-deliver them to the office that processes the certificates. The third time will have to be the charm.

Zandy called the man whose details she had on a form with her fingerprints and told him what had happened. He hadn’t noticed either, but he insisted on swapping them back. So, I said we have to cut his prints off of her form and cut hers off of his before each person traded back their forms. We met him outside the gate of her apartment with a pair of scissors to cut each other’s fingerprints from the forms. It was all sort of useless, but at least some stranger doesn’t have her fingerprints or personal info. I’m sure he’ll have to get a new set of fingerprints taken, too – I can’t see the police service accepting a cut-and-paste fingerprint form for anything official.

So, Sunday night we boarded a bus in Durban and were off to Johannesburg for day one of the two-day medical proceedings. We arrived at Park Station at close to 6:00 am Monday. I was a little wary, because I had never been to Park Station before and hadn’t heard great reviews from other volunteers. I was prepared for the worst in terms of our safety, but it turned out to be pretty tame.

I asked a station security guard for directions to the Gautrain (a metro rail system connecting the neighboring cities of Johannesburg and Pretoria), after we had wandered around the immediate area and hadn’t noticed any signs. She simply said “go up” and motioned to the escalator. I tried to get a little more detail (like “then a left” or “you’ll see the signs”), but she would have none of it. Luckily, at the top of the escalators we saw some clear directions and a few minutes later we were waiting for the next train.

We avoided the taxi rank at Park Station and went directly from the bus drop-off to the Gautrain platform, and seemingly avoided any sketchy situations. We boarded the Gautrain for Sandton – an affluent, metropolitan area of Johannesburg that hosts the US Consulate and a huge mall (Sandton City) containing the required medical office.

At the mall, restaurants serving breakfast were just opening. We staked out the location of the medical office and the ATMs, then sat down at Mugg & Bean (a Perkins-style restaurant, fairly ubiquitous for large shopping centers in South Africa) for a nice breakfast and free wifi to kill some time before the appointment.

We arrived at the appointment early on purpose. We knew they would have Zandy fill out some paperwork, and we were already told that she would have to undergo some blood tests and X-rays. Of course, the detail that we missed (or was possibly left out) was that the majority of the day’s requirements would be done at labs that were not even in the same building. They gave Zandy her prescriptions for the tests and a paper containing some less-than-stellar directions to the hospital/medical center where they would be performed. With the help of Google maps on my phone, we set off on foot – each still carrying our bags for the overnight stay – for the 1.6 mile (2.6 km) walk to the medical center.

Once there, more paperwork was filled out and the required tests were performed. We walked back to the Gautrain station near Sandton City and took the train north to the Hatfield area of Pretoria. After about 35 minutes on the train, we walked the short distance to Khayalethu Guest House to check in to our room for the night. After a snack, a shower, and getting directions to the nearest police station, we were back out again to continue the quest for Zandy’s Police Clearance Certificate.

Back at the Gautrain, we only needed to go one stop to the Pretoria Station to make our way to the SAPS office. As we were exiting the Gautrain station in Pretoria, about four or five Gautrain security guards stopped us at the door because Zandy was chewing gum. Clearly, these people had nothing better to do. I understand that they want to keep a strict policy of no food or drinks on the train (including gum), but stopping us for a lecture as we are leaving is stupid. We almost walked right past them, and now I wish we had. After all, they are not police (even though their uniforms look as though they could be) and we had things to do. If anyone from the Gautrain management is reading this, please note: bad attitudes on the part of your security guards towards your paying customers’ minor infractions of rules that have no negative effect on anyone will just irritate the customers and encourage them not to use your service.

From there, we walked to the nearest SAPS station. Of course, they informed us that they don’t do fingerprints at that station and we would have to go to a different one. When we arrived at the proper station, it was nearly quarter to four in the afternoon. At that time we found out that they only do fingerprinting from 7:30 am to 3:30 pm. The room where this is done in the station was already locked and lights out. We could have done something else with our afternoon (that didn’t include a lecture from security guards), but as it happened, Monday afternoon accomplished nothing. We went back to our room, watched a movie on my laptop and then walked to a nice restaurant for dinner and a bottle of wine.

Tuesday now had a very full agenda. We were up at 6:00 am, so we could be out the door by 7:00 to grab a quick breakfast at Khayalethu (always nice) and head back to Pretoria to sort out the police clearance application with enough time to take the Gautrain back to Sandton for part two of the medical exam. We checked out of Khayalethu, but Scott and DJ there were very helpful to let us keep our bags there while we were running all our errands throughout the day.

We arrived at the Police station just before 8:00 am. When we got in the room for fingerprints we learned we needed to have a photocopy of Zandy’s ID to submit with the fingerprints. Amazingly, they had to direct us to a place outside of the police station because they don’t do photocopies there. (They can manage to make photocopies in the Durban office, but not in Pretoria.) The extreme level of inefficiency at this point was no longer surprising, but certainly irritating and definitely exhausting. It felt like no one there really wanted to do their job, and if they made it difficult enough, customers would give up so the employees could go back to figuring out other ways of avoiding doing work. I mean, they could buy a photocopier and do the copies for the people on the spot (and even charge them a premium price to do so), but they don’t seem interested in accomplishing … anything.

Back on the street, we found a photocopy place. We made two copies of her ID and a couple copies of her passport, just in case. We went back to the station and Zandy inked up her fingers for the third occasion in just over one month’s time for the same purpose. Then we went to pay the cashier in the next room. The cost, again, was R59. The woman had a clearly bad attitude from the start. She greeted us by saying in a thick Afrikaans accent, “I’m not interested in any stories.”

I’m not entirely sure what she meant by this, and Zandy wasn’t even sure she was talking to us. But, I took it to mean something along the lines of “Don’t tell me any reasons why you don’t think you should pay for this,” even though we hadn’t said anything to anyone yet about the extreme incompetence at the Durban station. And, if that is what she meant, I also take it as an admission of guilt on her part – as if she knows that everyone there is horrible at their job, and there is nothing that anyone could do about it. So, don’t tell her any stories, just pay. Oh, and by the way, she doesn’t make change. So our cost that morning was R60.

In the only attempt she made in any way to be helpful, she started giving us directions to where the application needs to be filed. Since I had already mapped out that building several blocks away the day before, I was happy to end that conversation and we could get away from her as quickly as possible.

We followed the directions from Google and after a little bit of confusion due to street names changing (the police service has not yet updated their own forms to reflect current street names that changed two or more years ago), we got to the office of criminal records where the application for the police clearance needs to be filed. We walked in and asked the receptionist there what we needed to do to file the application. I specifically asked her if it would be okay to have the certificate mailed to a specific address when it was ready. She said it wasn’t a problem and to go wait in queue number two.

We walked right up to the clerk at queue number two and Zandy handed her the paperwork. She filled out a receipt and told us that they would send a text message to Zandy when it was ready to be picked up. I spoke up quickly, “But, we need to have this sent to us in the mail.”

“Oh, you’ll need to bring in a registered envelope from the Post Office to do that.”

“I just asked the woman at the reception desk about having the certificate mailed, and she didn’t say anything about getting a registered envelope from the post office!”

I asked the clerk if we should take our application and come back with it when we have an envelope ready or if it would be okay to leave it with her and bring the envelope later. She said to leave it with her, as a post office is nearby.

I think Zandy has more patience for this sort of thing than I do. When we walked out of the Criminal Records office, we re-examined our situation and decided not to take a chance on the postal service. I’ll be back in Pretoria for Peace Corps-related business in the near future and can pick it up in-person then. Otherwise, Zandy can pick it up in-person before she goes to her interview.

We went back in, but I said Zandy had to go talk to the clerk again by herself because I might start yelling at people. Zandy came back to me and said that the clerk thought it was better that we just pick it up because she doesn’t trust that the postal service would get it to us in a timely manner. Perhaps we’re dodging a bullet. As of today, we’ve already received a text message from them that her application is in process, and I’m feeling better about the whole thing.

It was just after 9:00 am at this point, and Zandy’s appointment in Sandton wasn’t until 11:15. Even with our walk back to the Gautrain, the ride to Sandton, and getting cash from the ATM to pay for the medical exam, we would be early.

We walked in the doctor’s office at about 10:30. Zandy handed them the envelope she got from the radiologist the day before and started to fill out some more papers when the nurse there said she just got a message from the doctor. His wife had been in a car accident and no one was sure when he’ll be in the office. He wasn’t answering his cell phone, so all anyone could do is wait for him to call back with an update.

Zandy came back to the waiting room and explained it to me. This was troubling for us, because we had to be on a bus back to Durban that evening. It was even more troubling for the other woman in the waiting room, as she was supposed to be on a flight at 2:30 that afternoon. I said to Zandy (maybe a little bit too loudly and insensitively to the situation), “I don’t mind if we have to reschedule the appointment, but I don’t want to sit here all day to find that out. There are other things we could be doing instead of sitting in a waiting room.”

Within a minute or two, the nurse came into the waiting room from behind the desk. She explained it all again and said if we want to go that she could call us once she has more information. We were happy with that and decided to find some lunch at the adjacent Nelson Mandela Square. We took some photos of a huge statue of the man himself, and went to the Hard Rock Cafe there for a pricey – yet very American – lunch.

Zandy and Nelson

The hostess and the waitress were both very friendly, and both way more outspoken than what is typical of waitstaff in South Africa. We walked around the whole place and checked out all the memorabilia hanging on the wall and some cool stuff in the gift shop. Then, we sat in full view of a big TV showing videos of U2 live at Red Rocks, Jack White and Alicia Keys, Motley Crue, and so on. I was particularly pleased that they offered free refills for soft drinks, something that is very rare in South African restaurants. I had three glasses of Coke just because I could. We split their appetizer sampler, which actually made for a very large lunch for the two of us, including hot wings, chicken strips, loaded potato skins, and onion rings, with different sauces. Zandy even got to try Santa Fe Spring Rolls for the first time.

Honestly, I wouldn’t recommend someone traveling from the states to visit the Hard Rock Cafe in South Africa, because it feels pretty much like sitting at one in America. But, after the way things had been going for last couple of days, it seemed really necessary … and reassuring.

Hard Rock Cafe Johannesburg

After lunch, we still hadn’t heard from the doctor’s office, so we walked back to get an update. It turned out that only minutes after we had left, the doctor arrived at the office. Apparently, the accident wasn’t too serious. They said they couldn’t find Zandy’s number and that is why they hadn’t phoned. Of course, we know they hadn’t looked very hard, since they had already phoned her more than once in the past couple weeks to confirm the appointment. Whatever. They were able to see her right away.

After some vaccinations and peeing in a cup, Zandy was finished. They assured us that they would send all of the required medical information directly to the consulate and it would be there within a week. We paid and were on our way back to Pretoria to collect our things so we could travel back to Durban that night.

We had enough time to spare in Pretoria that I was able to pick up a few things for the library at my school, and in the lounge of Khayalethu, after picking up our bags, we sat and watched another movie on my laptop. We took one last trip on the Gautrain to Pretoria Station, where we had plenty of time to have dinner at McDonald’s and make jokes about all the gum we should have chewed on the train that day.

About 8:00 pm we were boarding the bus for an 8:30 departure. We could have taken the same bus and just gotten on it later in Johannesburg, but at the time I made the reservations I still had never been to Park Station before and didn’t want to be there after dark. The benefit to getting on in Pretoria is that it is the start of that bus trip and we were some of the first people on to pick our seats. All of the people who boarded in Johannesburg had to take whatever seats were left.

On Wednesday morning, safely back in Durban, Zandy and I grabbed breakfast at the Mugg & Bean near her apartment. Later that morning, I got on a taxi to head back to the village.

One step to go.


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