THE dust, dirt, long snaking queues and aggressive vendors just outside the main offices of Zimbabwe’s dilapidated passport office at Makombe Building in Harare make for a chaotic if not foreboding atmosphere.
Upon arrival at the offices it is not difficult to understand why the offices rank topmost among the places people dread visiting. As soon as the gates open, pushing and shoving are the order of the day as passport seekers scream and shout, while children’s cries of hunger intermittently pierce the musty air.
The many meandering queues quickly take their toll on people’s patience.
There are no special arrangements for the elderly, the pregnant or disabled who forlornly await their turn while passport officials allegedly first serve those that would have been referred to them after money has exchanged hands through the intricate channels the staff have set up with outsiders.
There is no running water due to regular rationing and ablution facilities are scarce. Neither is there a place to purchase a decent meal and as a result hunger pangs usually translate into frayed tempers.
Visitors to the passport offices are greeted mostly by grumpy and demotivated civil servants who earn as little as US$350 per month. They in turn vent their frustrations on poor citizens mainly seeking identity and travel documents.
Passport seekers are shuttled from one office to the other, with bossy officials barking angrily at those who get into the wrong offices or block the path of the stuffy and crowded corridors and small offices.
Those seeking to sort out passport issues are best advised to choose their words very carefully at all times when communicating with Makombe staff as a slight misunderstanding or misconstrued statement could mean being ignored as punishment or suffering the ignominy of being chucked to the back of the queue.
For those with cash to spare, a bribe of about US$30 through corrupt channels ensures one is served promptly and courteously.
A person who has paid a bribe is typically seen by his or her confidence in jumping the queue and heading straight to the serving desk where they mention the name of the staffer who has “sent” them.
From that office, they are then referred to different staffers at other offices where they breeze through the entire process without any hustle.
In stark contrast, those without cash to grease officials’ palms are forced to queue outside Makombe Building for hours from as early as 4am, with no guarantees they will be served on that particular day.
Positions in the queue are for sale from a syndicate whose members get up early to occupy strategic positions in the queue.
Last year, Registrar-General Tobaiwa Mudede gave assurances the public would benefit from the computerisation of his offices as it would improve efficiency and reduce time spent queuing for forms.
He announced that part of the computerisation of his office would introduce “a top-of-the-line SMS solution and has developed unique applications which will enable the RG to give better service to the Zimbabwean citizen. Under the new system the RG’s office will also be sending SMS messages to passport applicants to collect their documents”.
Mudede also triumphantly announced Zimbabweans wishing to apply for passports could download application forms on the Internet, fill them in online before submitting them at the passport office for a US$3 fee. However, the forms have proved impossible to download.
Furthermore, the prevailing situation at the passport offices belies Mudede’s pronouncements as professionalism and efficiency remain alien to his department, while queues, frustration and bribes for staff in cramped offices remain the order of the day.
An ordinary passport costs US$50 and takes four to six weeks to process; an emergency passport takes three days at a cost of US$250, while an executive passport takes a day at US$315. Social commentator Maxwell Saungweme said the announcement last year that passport processing had gone online was just a “high-sounding nothing.”
Saungweme said: “Nothing really went online; apart from that people with internet access would access the website but have difficulties downloading the passport forms.
“People still have to endure the process of getting into queues; buying the forms at the RG’s office and joining queues to submit the forms and have fingerprints taken. The long queues and inefficiency also await people at passport collection.”
He added:“A typical online passport system, apart from enabling people to download forms online, would include allowing people to pay passport fees electronically, making appointments for submission and collection of passports online and one only has to go to the passport offices at the appointed time when they are booked to collect their passport. But Zimbabwe’s passport offices continue to be characterised by corruption and inefficiency as nothing has changed.”
Political commentator Blessing Vava said there are a lot of rogue elements at the RG’s office hence its failure to execute its duties efficiently and professionally. “Professionalism and efficiency are alien to this office and heads must definitely roll if anything is to improve,” said Vava.
The situation at the RG’s offices reflect the corruption and incompetency within the civil service in general.