Nightmare at Home Affairs bank branch — where the system also goes offline

There is no guarantee that using one of the few Home Affairs branches located at South Africa’s major banks will offer a seamless experience.

Many South Africans, including MyBroadband’s journalists, have had relatively trouble-free excursions to apply for and collect their smart ID cards or passports at these offices.

These facilities offer an alternative to standing in snaking queues at large Home Affairs offices, which have become infamous for slow service and frequent downtime.

Bank-based Home Affairs units require that the initial application and payments are handled on the E-Home Affairs portal, cutting down the time spent at the branch.

They also don’t offer the myriad of other services available at main Home Affairs offices, reducing the volume of visitors.

But those benefits were not experienced by one Hillcrest resident and software engineer, who recently applied for a renewal of his passport via one of these branches.

While banks provide Home Affairs with floor space and reliable infrastructure, they do not operate them or provide their systems.

As the engineer’s ordeal illustrates, bank-based Home Affairs branches still rely on government systems and can suffer from similar problems as traditional offices.

A queue outside Home Affairs in Umgeni, Kwa-Zulu Natal

My tale begins on 31 January 2022, when I was finally able to log into the Home Affairs e-services website to process an application for a new passport.

The site’s response times were generally slow, and I often struggled to get my one-time pin (OTP) to proceed with the application.

Miraculously, on one of my attempts, I finally did get my OTP and was able to log in.

The online process of applying for the passport and paying for it was relatively painless.

The difficult part was getting a booking at my nearest FNB branch that handles ID and Passport applications.

To do this, I had to manually alter the “from” and “to” dates when looking for an appointment.

I managed to get an appointment for about a month later, on 28 February at 09:00 AM.

One of the forms on the E-Home Affairs portal

My closest branch was at a Cornubia Mall close to Umhlanga, 45km from my home in Hillcrest.

I hadn’t dealt with Home Affairs in a while, but I had heard the horror stories of going to Home Affairs’ main offices located in Pinetown and Musgrave.

I did not want to go through that, so I reckoned it was worth the drive as I surely wouldn’t have to wait long with my appointment time.

A queue at first sight

On the day of my appointment, I arrived at Cornubia Mall and was greeted with a very long queue of more than 100 people outside the FNB branch.

It turns out that you will see this every day that the Home Affairs office operates, which are only weekdays.

After enquiring with other people waiting, I discovered there was a queue for collections, which was very long, and a queue for applications, which was not as long.

Despite being in the latter, I waited for about an hour as they had to do applications for people who didn’t get their applications done the day before, because the system had been offline.

After waiting for about an hour and a half, my ID number was called.

Inside the branch, I had to sit and wait in another queue as they only allowed a certain amount of people inside the bank and then processed them in batches.

Here, it took about another 30 minutes before it was my turn.

During this time. I observed what the actual process was to do a straightforward application.

These are applications that didn’t have any complexities with birth country or the like.

The process for a new passport application was as follows:

  • Provide your ID
  • Sign your name on an electronic device
  • Scan thumbprint
  • Sit down to take a picture

If done without any delays, this should not take more than two or three minutes.

Home Affairs officer taking a digital fingerprint
Home Affairs officer taking a digital fingerprint at another bank-based branch

The issue was that every time the Home Affairs employee had completed an application, the camera was no longer picked up by the system.

The only way to get the system to detect the camera again was to reboot the computer, which took about 10 minutes.

After it rebooted, there was a modal popup listing all the hardware devices linked to the system — like the fingerprint scanner and camera — with little check marks next to them to indicate that they were functional.

Whenever they rebooted, the camera would have a little cross next to it to show that the system did not pick it up, at which point the Home Affairs employee got up and turned the camera off and on again.

The system then picked up the camera and displayed a tick.

Unplugging the camera and plugging it back in or turning the camera on and off was not enough.

They had to do the whole reboot process to have the modal pop up and show the devices and their online status.

I think adding a button somewhere that could re-initialise all connected hardware without having to reboot the system every time, would most likely make this process much quicker.

My application was eventually processed successfully and I was out two hours after my appointment was booked.

I received an SMS confirming my application and was told Home Affairs would contact me when my passport was ready for collection.

Less than two weeks later, I got an email and SMS that said my passport would be ready for collection from 9 March. I finally had the time to go and collect it on 24 March 2022.

As I work from home, I tell my boss I’ll be online a bit late, and I take the 45km drive to Cornubia.

Because the branch opened at 08:30, I ensured I was there 10 minutes earlier.

Collection chaos

By the time I arrived at the branch, there were already about 20 people in the collections queue and many others with appointments for new applications.

Little did I know that a bunch of those people were there for collections after not getting their IDs or passports the previous day.

They had been added to a special list to be processed first thing on the day of my appointment. There were probably about 30 people on that list.

I started waiting, with the queue growing until there were more than 100 people behind me.

The branch only allowed six people into the bank at a time to be processed and that was going painfully slow. It probably took about 30 minutes per batch of six.

For reference, the process for the collection of IDs and passports was typically as follows:

  • Show your ID
  • Sign the electronic device that captures signatures
  • Scan your thumbprint

In theory, that should take less than a minute.

As I listened to people talk, I learnt that some had been there two or three days without getting their IDs or passports.

I realised that I might be there all day and might still not get my passport.

At one point, a security guard brought out a book for us to make a list of our ID numbers to be processed and I was about 20th from the top of that list.

Around 10:30, after being there for two hours, I started getting worried that I would have to make a tough decision soon — either take a day’s leave and risk not getting processed or rather go home.

Surrender

At about 11:15, the lone Home Affairs employee who handled the collections came out and called the last six people on the list from the previous day into the bank.

He duly informed us waiting in the queue that he had bad news — the system was down.

At this point, I decided that it was not worthwhile to waste a full day’s leave standing in a queue, with the possibility of still not getting my passport.

I left and travelled the 45km home, having wasted three hours of my day.

I don’t know what to do now. How and when will I get my passport? Do I need to take two days’ leave to do this and will there still be a chance that I won’t get it?

I’m a software engineer, and for there to be any downtime in any production system that so many people depend on is unacceptable.

It would also help if there wasn’t just one person dedicated to handling collections at the Cornubia branch with that massive backlog.

They must have some fallback process in case the system is down, like offline processing or signatures on paper.

I’m hoping that Home Affairs fixes their systems and processes so that doing a collection is as it should be — quick and painless — and only then will I go back to try again.


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Nightmare at Home Affairs bank branch — where the system also goes offline