South Africa 2008 – My Passport is Full
My passport is nearly out of pages, and that nearly kept me from entering South Africa this weekend. South Africa has a strict rule that your passport not only expire more than 3 months in the future (which is common) but also that it have at least TWO full blank pages left.
I knew this, but didn't worry about it because I have exactly two pages (23 and 24) left. However, when we arrived in Johannesburg Airport and started going through passport control, the young lady at the desk announced:
"Your Passport is full."
"Ah, well, it has two free pages at the back."
"NO. It's full. Those pages are for amendments, not Visas."
"Really? I didn't realize that. I'm not sure I know what an amendment is. Can we just use those and I'll promise to get more pages when I get back home?"
"Well, what can be done? Is there someone I can talk to?"
"What are you saying exactly?"
"I'm wondering if there's someone who might be able to help out with this problem."
"Are you implying I don't know how to do my job?"
"Um, no, not at all, I'm just trying to understand what the next steps are."
At this point, I'm literally stunned. The anger and negative vibe I'm getting here is really greater than ANYTHING I've ever felt before. We've had stones thrown at us by hooligans and had years of stares and negativity, but I'm really sensing that this lady HATES me, and I'm only a few sentences into our interaction here.
Then a older white guy comes over (the angry passport person was a very young Black lady) and asks what's up. It's clear that he's a peer from a job perspective. NOT a boss. In fact, there doesn't appear to be a boss anywhere to be seen. I'm used to some kind of passport overseer around.
Anyway, this guys says, "No, no, there's a new rule - there was a memo - that it's now OK to use the Amendments page on American Passports." This new rule is apparently a few months old.
I've been silent since my last sentence...but now the older guy and the young lady are starting to get into it, in front of me. He's saying that he'll take the responsibility/fall and sign whatever to get me my visa. She's saying no way. Then he snatches my passport from her and walks away sharper, declaring "...and now I have to do YOUR job."
The young lady is now mumbling under her breath in isiZulu about what an asshole both this guy and I am. But she's continuing to process the family's passport. A VERY long ten minutes pass and Older Guy comes over all apologies and light, saying he's sorry for the confusion and the trouble. He leaves.
The Young Lady gives us our passports and I say "Siyabonga sibili sisi..." She starts a little, but there's still steam coming out of her ears. But, we're through.
My wife is pretty steamed at this point, but not with Young Lady, instead with me. She feels I handled a very African situation in a very American way. Rather than being instantly and extremely submissive to the Person in Power, I was logical, and implied that perhaps a supervisor could break the impasse.
My brother in law feels that Americans in a service capacity (like a Passport Control Officer) typically don't want responsibility, preferring instead to defer to a supervisor who would ultimately take any heat from a decision. Africans, on the other hand, will assert any and all power that they have, almost a societal game of Rock, Paper, Scissors. A bus driver may be a "societal nobody" but he's still King of the Bus and he can kick Hobos and Presidents alike off the bus. This woman, for whatever reason, was asserting her Power, and when I didn't back down and say something like "Oh, my, I'm so sorry, I had no idea...can you help me?" I had already lost.
This interaction put a REALLY bad taste in my mouth, as it was an interaction that totally didn't go the way my mental script had laid it out.
As much as people are the same, cultures are VERY different. Now I realize that this Young Lady might have just broken up with her boyfriend or been oppressed by Whites her whole life. Or, maybe she just had a bad day and I got caught in the middle. I'll never know, but I do know that I was a biscuit away from being turned around (or calling the US Embassy) and came dangerously close to a ruined trip.
What's the moral of the story? I've travelled all over, and I think I'm pretty thoughtful, knowledgeable and even charming. This usually works great for me (has for 35 years) in interaction with folks. However, even after more than a half-dozen trips to various African countries, I'm reminded that I don't know much at all. I'm not quite sure what I could have done to make this interaction more successful, short of living in South Africa for more than a month at a time.
What do YOU think, Dear Reader? How do things work in your country between People with Power and People without? This might be as simple as an interaction between a customer and a waiter, or a loan officer, or a customs agent.