The president’s Cabinet should be a cosy little family of government departments — an inner circle where each ministry supports the other, in turn all making common cause for the greater national good. Instead the avuncular Jacob Zuma presides over a dysfunctional, maladjusted and in some cases, downright sinister bunch.

The bullying, thug portfolios congregate in the security cluster. The police ministry mows down strikers with negligible remorse and each year is implicated in hundreds of assaults, tortures and deaths in holding cells.

Acting with similar apparent impunity, correctional services, too, has a terrible record of prisoners abused or dying inexplicably. Then there’s the intelligence ministry, the tattletale of the family, spying on the other members and keeping Uncle JayZee briefed on incipient rebelliousness.

And so one could go on, wading through the whole sorry lot, identifying pathologies and quirks sufficiently widespread to require aeons of political psychotherapy.

However, the real monster in the family is home affairs. This is the surly hunchback in the attic, the malformed throwback to an illicit liaison from which everyone averts their eyes and pretends never happened. In this case, it’s the African National Congress’s xenophobia mated with the National Party’s race obsession.

Let’s not forget that home affairs was born during the Nat years and called internal affairs, before in 1994 there was a cursory makeover, changing nothing much more than its name. This was the ministry that prior to democracy had been entrusted with apartheid’s holy grail of ethnic streaming.

Infernal affairs’ history of nastiness includes concocting its own ersatz racial purity tests. Using this jiggery-pokery it would decree by means of a few digits on the national identity card the fate, literally, of citizens with perplexingly Afrikaner antecedents but politically unacceptable dusky hues. This was also the department that refused passports to dissidents, thus placing them in internal exile, or issued the exit permits that condemned them to distant lands.

The name of the ministry might have changed, but old habits die hard. The zeitgeist of apartheid bureaucracy and arrogance still blows down those dank corridors. The post-democracy history of home affairs is not a happy one.

It is so corrupt that fraudulently issued South African passports are the travel document of choice of international criminal and terror gangs. Consequently, South Africans now face more onerous visa obligations than they ever did in the heyday of apartheid.

It is so lackadaisical that when a few years back a young man took a home affairs official hostage at gunpoint in order to get an identity document, public sentiment was entirely with the strung-out youth rather than the terrified official. The young man had lost a coveted job because he couldn’t produce an ID, despite many months of home affairs promises and many days spent queuing. Anyone who has ever been at the mercy of the ministry’s supercilious and incompetent officials — in other words, every adult in the country — could empathise with his blind rage.

It is so arrogant that when Public Protector Thuli Madonsela last year ordered it to grant permanent resident documents denied for 17 years to a Dutch couple who had emigrated to SA and adopted two South African children, it simply ignored the ruling. Then, when its deportation order on the parents, splitting up the family, was struck down in the high court, it went on appeal. The family still waits on tenterhooks.

It is so inefficient that this week 900 immigrants filed an urgent high court application to compel home affairs to do its job. The ministry fails to process applications for permits timeously, which means that their papers lapse, causing them to become “illegal foreigners”, unable to work, study, access medical and banking services, and also making them vulnerable to arrest, arbitrary internment and deportation.

It is so stupid that it ignored all warnings and this month implemented new travel regulations, slated as the most restrictive in the world, which will harm tourism terribly — from China alone, arrivals are predicted to drop 70%. Tourism just happens to be the only sector of the economy that is flourishing.

It is so vindictive that until this week ordered by the high court to do so, it refused for six years to register the birth of a Cuban couple’s baby, despite them being permanent residents. Since the Cuban authorities would not issue the child a passport either, the family was marooned in SA for the interim, unable to take up several job offers overseas.

It is so sad that in the family of government departments the ministers may come and go, but the old bureaucratic ethos of a haughty lack of accountability remains. Forever, it seems.

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye


  • This Jaundiced Eye column appears in Weekend Argus, The Citizen, and Independent on Saturday. WSM is also a book reviewer for the Sunday Times and Business Day. Follow @TheJaundicedEye.


William Saunderson-Meyer

This Jaundiced Eye column appears in Weekend Argus, The Citizen, and Independent on Saturday. WSM is also a book reviewer for the Sunday Times and Business Day....

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