Daily Hassle: Getting a Passport in Zimbabwe

Harare - A while back, the Registrar General’s Passport office at Makombe Building in Harare was a regular media caption as an epicentere of vice, harassment from staff and touts pursuing to eke out an illicit living.

Droves of applicants confronted permanent snaking queues, bribing of officials to fast-track the procedure were tolerated among other manmade setbacks. 

In turn, passport officers drove flashy cars, drank in classy bars, and built plushy homes — all aided by flourishing corruption, irrespective of their skimpy earnings.

The abuse of citizens in obtaining the essential document prompted a vocal protest from some legislators.

“MPs need to push for speedy processing of passports for citizens because it is a right, it is not a privilege and long queues are an affront to human dignity as it is wrong to have cumbersome process of getting passports and other identity documents,” one parliamentarian voiced.

Though recent operational changes at the offices have brought an optimistic image for Zimbabwe, some previous trials still persist, according to this scribe’s recent encounter.

Bogus charlatans
Since my last stopover at the registrars’ office, a decade back, I projected an amended service, as per information gleaned from reliable sources.
Makombe Passport Offices in Harare 
Camping outside to secure travelling documents was not a peculiar option for anxious citizenry, pursuing to scavenge for menial jobs, particularly in South Africa as the economy crept towards a comatose status, after a highly contested election in 2000.

During the said era, bogus operators alongside destitute youths assumed front positions early in the morning pretending to be passport aspirants, and later redeemed their spots to clients for a fee ranging from $10, causing the Registrar General to issue a cautionary statement.

“Our people know once you are caught, you are in soup. And we want people to help us in terms of those touts outside because we can’t control them and they can identify which officer has helped them,” recited the long-serving registrar.

Fast forward a decade later.

Arriving at the prehistoric building at 12:45pm, I was allocated number 739. My photocopied identity documents were checked and signed in approval. The ensuing phase, the lengthiest wait was payment for the passport form.

For now, the hostile heat, toilet or water breaks were secondary. As the queue dragged on, we chatted.

“Are you using cash or Point of Sale (POS)? If you have cash, I can use my card and you can give me the cash,” one applicant pleaded with me.

Due to cash crunch evolving in Harare, residents frantic for cash mop up any available hard currency reserves, and in turn swipe with their electronic cards in exchange for the elusive greenback.

Relief at last
An hour later, the queue was still static.

After lunch, there was a positive motion. Finally, I obtained the form. A decade earlier, this was a feat worth celebrating. Electing a secluded site, I withdrew my black pen. Previously, selling black pens was a brisk trade as the only permissible ink.

Now, even blue ink is tolerated, but phony hawkers still vend them to naive clients. One senior lady had already been a victim of the outside impostors, when she was coerced to have her photos taken, only to find out that everything was now done internally.

She lost $5.

In discontent, I witnessed crowded aspirants struggling to complete forms. An aged man, possibly in an attempt to visit his children abroad, scribbled hesitantly on the dotted lines. One of his daughters had left him while she rushed to work.

Here, it is one man for himself, and the passport officers for us all.

On stage 3, the data entry and photo shoot section, a weary lady, possibly beyond her retirement age emerges. She gathers completed forms, before vanishing without a word. Moments later, she returns calling out names in a faint tone for the photo session plus data capture.

A yawning sign herein pronounces, “When your number appears on the screen, please proceed to the next unoccupied station.” This announcement is in vain, as the public address system and the television monitors to notify applicants are down, so alertness is paramount.

Technology advancement
Belated computerisation of the registrar’s office brought relief not only to applicants, but staff, earning the department an award as the most digitalised government sector in 2016.

Application forms were once availed online. Soon after it was disbanded after recurrent gremlins were recorded. SMS notifications were added to alert applicants of collection dates, while photos are now done internally, saving time and money.

Pressed with a cash crisis, the department, for the first time availed POS machines to pay for rendered services. Extra shifts have been scheduled for the civil servants. As of writing, a latest availed passport production machine from Japan has upped daily production of passport booklets to 16 000 from the initial 3 000.

The amended and efficient services attracted the gratitude of known government critics. Finally, I had gone through three stages. Again, another winding file awaited me at stage 4 when I noticed a blunder.

“Yes, ask what you what to know,” was the clerk’s response to my intended query, later mentioning that the addition of a zero to all IDs was deliberate.

A cross boarder trader, Martha Timothy was equally elated with her coup.

“This is victory for me — I have been in the queue since morning to apply for my passport. But I wish they could add more pages for frequent travellers such as myself,” noted Timothy as she paced out.

At exactly 4:19pm, my mission at the passport office was done in a record 3 hours. I will return in six weeks for collection. Until then, the everlasting shenanigans at Makombe Building continue to outwit any intended positive transformations.

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