An interesting start…

October 12 2012

Is it an inauspicious start to the new life abroad? On my first day in Johannesburg I can say I’ve become an illegal immigrant, got caught up in a riot, been solicited for a bribe and been refused a bank account.

All technically true. Sadly none of it quite as exciting as it sounds.

For the first part, an ‘interesting’ quirk of the South African visa and permits system means that although I applied for a permit – and received one – in London just two months ago, my first task upon arrival had to be to visit the Department of Home Affairs in downtown Johannesburg to apply for another one.

The details are a bit tedious, but basically I’m here on a relative’s permit, by virtue of being married to a South African. Unfortunately, you’re not allowed to work on a Relative’s Permit. If, however, you have a Spousal Permit, you can get your passport endorsed for the right to earn a living while here. The stamp – from what I gather – is pretty much a formality, but the important thing is that unlike a regular Work Permit you don’t need to prove that no citizen of the country can do your job at least as well before you’ll be allowed to do it.

Told you it was boring. It’s a good system in one way – returning citizens can bring their families home with a lot less hassle and cost than UK citizens can bring partners into their country. The cost to me was just three trips to the London High Commission and a couple of medical and police reports – not cheap, but not massively expensive. It would have only cost two trips to London, except that on the first one I accidentally brought a photocopy of a document not the original one.

The problem is, however, that it’s impossible to get a Spousal Permit via an overseas embassy. Or at least, the London High Commission won’t issue them, and there’s no apparent reason for this. So today’s task was to take all the same paperwork to the Department of Home Affairs to apply for a second permit. Ironically, at DHA they insist on photocopies and not the original documents.

So right now, I’m not allowed to earn a living under SA law. There’s a project I was working on in the UK before I left, however, which requires me to read three pages and sign them off at some point over the weekend before it’s finished. Technically, by reading those pages I’ll be breaking the law – but you know what, I’m going to chance it.

Which makes me – for a couple of hours at least – an illegal immigrant.

As for the riot – while sitting in DHA waiting for a free advisor, I realised that some of the paperwork I might need had been left in the car. So I left Tamsin and Tabby to hold my place in the queue while I ran back to get them.

At this point, I should probably explain that while driving around Johannesburg CBD two things rapidly became apparent. One, as the (one time) crime capital of a very crime ridden country, it’s still not a place a lot of South African’s are comfortable in. One of which is my wife, who hasn’t been here since its darkest days. Two, we have no idea where to park in central Johannesburg. The burnt out multistory next to the DHA building (thanks Google Maps) doesn’t seem like a safe place to park my brother in law’s pickup truck.

So we’re circling the one way system, feeling a little aggitated, with nowhere to stop near the DHA building. At which point my wife swings into a private parking lot. The guard makes a half hearted attempt to stop us, then says “how much will you pay me?” In a rather pathetic and terribly middle class way, I have been solicited for a bribe. To which my response is: “ummm – I have no idea, what’s the going rate for bribing a parking attendant?” Look at my fearsome street smarts and shake with fear.

Which brings us back to point two – involved in a riot. On my way back to the car, the street (Harrison Street) outside the DHA had been completed blocked off by police. On my way back, I found out why. A small demonstration – about 60 people – were moving down the street chanting, on their way to a rally point for striking truck drivers. Given the heavy police presence and the small number of demonstrators, I did something which – as a journalist – I should have known better than to do. I took a picture with my smartphone.

Unfortunately, I’d left the flash on.

As the phone focused, the LED popped. And about ten of the protestors broke off to chase me off (one of them took a swipe at my ankle). Stupid thing for me to do, ridiculous reponse which – I presume – wasn’t entirely unrelated to the colour of my skin. I think I had been mistaken for a banker (there’s a lot of banks in the area, but I don’t think the inhabitants walk around there much).The nice thing being that several people not involved in the demo stopped to ask how I was and make sure I was OK.

“They’re just interested in violence. We don’t like them here.”

The bad thing is, I didn’t get the picture. Not much of a professional, me. Hence no pic at the top of this post.

So not technically involved in a riot at all. I’m exaggerating enormously for effect. Stupid thing was that the strike was over, the workers won. Why still so angry?

With the permit application finally in, it was off to a bank to open an account, so I can pay things like rent, utilities and mobile phone bill without having to pay with a UK card and pay international fees each time. After an hour’s worth of queuing (there was only one person ahead of me) I found out that without a work permit, I can’t open a bank account. Which makes me wonder what retirees who move to Cape Town from overseas do – and also how I’m going to pay my phone bill for the next month. Fortunately, my wife already has a bank account in South Africa, which she’s had for many years. It only took her the best part of two hours to get it working again.

Still, I was reused a bank account. If only for a very dull reason.

And the rest of the day was spent mostly in traffic jams. Huge thunderstorms have taken out enough traffic lights to cause near gridlock. I’m reassured this is not an unusual occurrence.

All of which may sound a trife bleak. Don’t, however, think for a moment I’m having second thoughts. Compared to – say – evidence of police collusion with neo-fascist Golden Dawn thugs in Greece, I’m just happy I now have a set of amusing stories for dinner parties. And a sore ankle.

Mik Cass
November 13 2012 @ 15:39

Sorry that you have left these shores for a far off place, but wish you and your family all the very best for your future in SA. Will miss your pages in PC Gamer which I really looked forward too, they were very interesting and very informative and have increased by little knowledge of PC innards greatly – I just hope that your replacement can live up to the high standard that you have set.

All the very best

November 13 2012 @ 18:24

Far too kind of you to say so. I’m hoping that once things have calmed down here a bit, I’ll be writing for Gamer again – albeit in a more limited capacity. We’ll just have to see how it goes.

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