||(Enter stage left: the university bureaucracy, University of KwaZulu Natal)
In South Africa, my legitimacy to represent myself as a legitimate representative of myself is constantly questioned. This is because I am a woman.
It is one of countless times I’ve gone down into the basement of Shepstone, in the hopes of maybe, just maybe, getting my student card renewed after an administrative glitch rendered it null and void a couple of months ago. I’ve tried waiting in the queue a few times. But it never seems to go anywhere. I just stand there until lunch hour takes effect; or just stand there until closing time; or I just stand there until I can’t stand there anymore, worried that all this time will be for nothing because deep down I know I must be missing some form or another and I am going to be sent on my way without my student card. I’ll be sent some wild and epic form chase, whether I make it to the front of the line and actually get to speak to someone, or not.
I have been burnt before. It took more than a week, at least a dozen trips to Shepstone and several phone calls to get a parking pass. It was at visit number four, I think, when I turned up to the wicket and peered in wondering where the staff was. “Hello, hello?” I queried into the thin air, to which someone replied that the counter staff was on tea. It was 9:30 am, the sign on the wicket said they opened at 9. But I already new this, because I had checked especially the day before in order to make a plan to come first thing, but not so early that I would have to wait for them to open late.“You’ve only been open for a half an hour, do you think you could come off your break?”. “We open at 8”, was the reply. “Well, the sign right here says nine.” We went back and forth like this for a little while until someone emerged, ripped the sign down and told me that they opened at eight. Yes. Well. So. It would take another three days and countless hours to get the parking pass.
This time I counted myself prepared. I consulted with the other members of my department who have the same student/post-doctoral status and asked them to explain to me, blow by blow , what *exactly* they did to achieve getting a renewed student card from RMS. In theory, they assured me, I would just walk in with the letter the department provided – which included all details, contacts, etc - RMS would pull up my file, issue the card and that would be it. Success. No payment required? Consensus was not. The need for the new student card, was after all set in motion by the university’s error. Should students have to pay for university errors? Was this a trick question?
It is not going to be that simple, I thought. I better confirm that I don’t have to pay for anything first, before I shovel more unlimited hours into this get-a-student-card-project. So I go to the accounts wicket and am told that they don’t know if I should pay under these circumstances. I go to the payment wicket after negotiating past the pitbull security who clearly has orders not to let anyone through, and explain to the person at the wicket that I better just pay my 20 ZAR. Otherwise, I am sure to spend three quarters of an hour with RMS before they send me back to pay, after which they will be closed for lunch, and so on. But, the cashier opts call down to RMS who assure her that they can speak to me *right away*. They can look at my case and then advise *right away* on payment. They can do all this *right away*, before lunch, which is only a little more than one short hour away. Can this be true, I wonder to myself?
Okay, so *right away* was bit of an exaggeration. There is a small line in the RMS room. Two guys are working – or at least two guys are sitting at two different desks - but one is playing solitaire on his computer. The line moves rather quickly and the next thing I know I am sitting in the picture-taking-chair. There is still only an hour before they close for lunch so I am still nervous and fidgety with anticipation. Can this really be “it”, after all this time? He looks at my letter, we negotiate for a while. I explain. I explain how it worked for the other two post docs. The minutes tick by. 12:10, 12:15: 12:20. He prepares to send me on my way, looks like I’ll need this form, and that form and… “No, no, no”, I think to myself, “I am so close. ” I implore him to call my department’s administrator, which he does. ” They have along conversation in Zulu. 12: 30: 12: 35…
The RMS officer hands the phone to me. I speak to our administrator. “He wants a letter”, she says. “He has the letter. Can you explain that this is the exact same letter used for the other post docs who now currently have cards?” I say. “I have,” she explains. “I don’t know what is wrong,” she continues “let me talk to him again.” 12:40.
Okay, I am getting panicky now, because I know RMS is going to close for lunch soon and I am not going to get my card. As a last resort, I call one of the other post docs. “Hey man (and he is literally a man), can you help me out here.” I explain the situation to him and confirm that I have done everything as he did it, except his efforts resulted in success. My efforts were looking seriously likely to yield nothing, except a waste of time. Again. Could he advise? But he’s perplexed, can’t see anything different from what he did.
Meanwhile the RMS officer hangs up with our administrator and prepares to send me packing, when, in a last ditch effort I say “Wait! Please at least talk to the other post doc, I’ve done everything he has, except he was issued a card.” The RMS officer accepts my cell phone.
Then suddenly everything changes. The RMS guy is all “yes sir” and “no, sir” and within a few short minutes, everything is resolved. The phone is handed back to me. “Thanks man” and I can’t help adding bitterly “It is always handy to have a man around to speak on my behalf here in South Africa.”
It is now 12:47. I must go pay 20 ZAR, and am told that they will wait for me and issue my card straight away upon my return. Another man adds “But, we close for lunch at 1”. So rush to the cashier, pay (even though strictly speaking I shouldn’t have to pay since it was a university administration error that rendered my first card null and void, but seriously, can I afford to let this opportunity slip by. Surely I will have to bring my father by next time to vouch for my humanity). I stand in line, tap-tap-tap; it is 12:55. I rush back to stand in line in the RMS office. They actually let me jump the queue! And finally, just under the lunch hour wire, I am released, card in hand.
So let’s get this straight. One South African women (from the cashier) phones down to RMS and explains the situation, queries whether payment should be made and is told to send the customer (me) with letter down to RMS. The matter can be dealt with *right away*. One Canadian white girl present and accounted for, full ID and letter of explanation from the department in hand fails, after 40 minutes, to convince RMS to issue student card. One female administrator, answering phone at official UKZN office phone, speaking Zulu, fails after 20 minutes to convince the male RMS officer that proper procedure has been followed and card must be issued. One quick call on my personal cell phone to some male voice with a suave British accent– can I stress this enough, as far as the RMS officer can confirm, this guy on the other end of my cell phone is just some guy on the other end of my cell phone - results in immediate positive action. Card is issued immediately.
This is what I deal with here in South Africa, everyday. My legitimacy to represent myself as a legitimate representative of myself is constantly questioned.