My unexpected month in Africa will always be a two-edged sword: a treasured memory on the one hand and a painful and expensive exercise in futility on the other hand.
Remember the purpose of this trip was to secure a police clearance report for Heidi – one-more charade we had to perform for the hapless Americans at the Frankfurt Consulate who never showed an ounce of compassion or reasonableness throughout the visa application process. As if to mock us, rubbing salt into the wound of our three-month delay to America, the Americans never even examined the police report once we obtained it. Upon handing it in, it was simply tucked into her file without so much as a glance and a provisional green card granted on the spot.
And yet if you asked me “if you had to do it again, would you?” the answer would be a definite yes. Traveling is a quintessential human experience and though I had briefly been to South Africa five years earlier, this month was a whole new experience for me, an experience that once again led to a more mature and circumspect outlook on this world and my place in it.
I hope that does not sound trite. In our journey through eight nations in Southern Africa, my wife and I not only faced a unique bonding opportunity, but a test of patience and an obligation to practice faith, for we had no idea how long we would have to wait to obtain the requisite document.
On the Matter of Bribery
That first day in Pretoria was eye-opening: the utter inefficiency and apathy of the South African bureaucracy on full display. The clerks were rude, the office was chaotic, and the man screaming about waiting 10 months for his documents was not at all comforting. But I seem to be making myself out to be a victim – oh the bad Americans, oh the bad South Africans – and perhaps my perspective should dwell on the following instead:
I had arrived in South Africa with no real clue to the inter-workings of the bureaucracy or the culture, but ready to bribe in order to get the document quicker. I made the assumption that this was Africa (as if the continent was homogenous) and therefore bribing is a way of life. After all, the trip started with extortion in Lagos…
A friend condemned me for even considering a bribe, telling me that it perpetuates a system of corruption. He is right, but note the implicit assumption in his argument that bribing works.
When we dropped off the documents in the Police Clearance Records Office, I asked the clerk who helped us if there was any expedite fee that could be paid to speed the process up. Money always talks, but he said no – that I would have to wait like everyone else.
A blog reader put me in touch with a middleman who would be critical in helping to expedite the process. I certainly did not bribe or even offer to bribe a government official, but was what I ended up doing really any different?
My contact had a friend in the Police Records Office. For a nominal fee (not so nominal actually…) she had her friend push Heidi’s record request to the front of the queue, allowing us to receive our documents just in time to catch our originally scheduled flight out. But it still took almost a month! Almost a month to run my wife’s name through a criminal database and print out a sheet of paper saying there was no match. The actual effort likely took no more than a few minutes.
I have absolutely no regrets paying off this woman to get the document quicker. Who knows how long we would have had to languish in South Africa without her intervention – perhaps several more months based upon the feedback we received from others on the lengthy police records request process.
I extensively studied 19th Century United States History while earning my BA and a favorite character of mine was this guy named George Washington Plunkitt. He was part of the Tammany Hall machine in New York City and is remembered for trying to distinguish between “honest graft” and “dishonest graft”. His most famous line was, “I seen my opportunities and I took ’em.” Graft is the unscrupulous use of a politician’s authority for personal gain. So-called “honest graft” is pursuing the best interest of others even as the byproduct also advances your personal interests. I am not trying to draw a direct parallel, but instead suggest that this sort of behavior cannot simply be condemned in an era in which it is so ingrained in culture and in practice.
Too Machiavellian? Perhaps, but it took over 100 years for the Tamany Machine in NYC to die and while slowing moving away from such unscrupulous practices, ANC-run South Africa remains a bastion of corruption and mired in inefficiency. My “service fee” put food on the table of a South African family for a month and saved me thousands of dollars in extra expenses. Most importantly, it saved my wife months of extra stress. Put another way, the system is broken in South Africa and I had no desire to try to fix it – so I just took advantage of it. And I would not have written this convoluted post if there was not some remorse, but the greater remorse is that this middleman was necessary in the first place.
Final Thoughts on My Final Thoughts
Consider what I had to go through to get a visa for my wife. Months of paperwork, multiple interviews, thousands of dollars, and a visit to South Africa. And she’s a white German. I have read so many stories in recent days about families from Syria, Iraq, and other “banned” countries who had gone through the lengthy process and expense of procuring Green Cards only to be turned away at the border after the President’s Executive Order. Many were separated from their families before a judge set aside the ban.
Whatever your political views, I can personally attest that Green Cards are not handed out like candy. We can debate the merits of whether the President has the constitutional authority to enact blanket immigration bans, but the Green Card vetting process is extensive and painstakingly detailed. In order to prove our relationship was “genuine” I ended up submitting over 300 pages of e-mails between Heidi and me spanning our then four-year relationship. Heidi was grilled like a criminal on three occasions and medically examined like a prisoner being processed into a maximum security jail. If this vetting process is not enough, nothing is.
Thus ends my Africa report.
Read More of My Month in Africa Trip Report
Introduction: A Month in Africa
Review: Houston to Lagos in United Airlines 787 Business
Transit in Lagos: Bribing My Way Out
Review: Oasis Lounge Lagos (LOS)
Review: Gabfol Lounge Lagos (LOS)
Lagos to Johannesburg in South African Airways Economy Class
Setting Up Shop in Pretoria
How to Obtain a South African Police Report
A Safari in Kruger National Park
Review: Nkambeni Safari Camp
Driving Through Swaziland
Review: Mountain Inn Mbabane, Swaziland
Review: Johannesburg to Livingstone, Zambia in British Airways Comair Economy Class
Our Humble Abode in Zambia
Victoria Falls from the Zambian Side
From Hate to Great: Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe
The Old House Guest Lodge – Kasane, Botswana
A Visit to Impalila Island, Namibia
Kasane, Botswana to Johannesburg on South African Airways (Airlink)
Review: Hyatt Regency Johannesburg (Suite)
Road Trip from Johannesburg to Lesotho
Review: South African Airways Domestic Voyager Lounge – JNB
The Cruel Poverty of Cape Town
The Robben Island Experience
A Photo Finish in Cape Town
Review: Bidvest Premier Lounge in Cape Town Airport
Review: Virgin Atlantic A340 Upper Class