Written By Tor, Latitudes Year ’20 South Africa
“In South Africa, Poverty Alleviation Programs Show r-Eel Results”
Everybody in this area knows and loves Anthea Rossouw, the woman who runs Dreamcatcher. She’s been at it for a long time, I gather, possibly since the days of apartheid. She gave up her status as a prominent community member in the white seaside town of Stilbaai (where her late husband was the mayor for several years) in order to help the residents of Melkhoutfontein, the neighboring township for people of Coloured (mixed-race) ancestry. Her programs have shown staggering results. After she picked Beverly and I up at the George airport and drove us to Melkhoutfontein along the almost Malibu-esque southern edge of the African continent, she showed us pictures of what Melkhoutfontein looked like just ten years ago. Children played barefoot on garbage dumps; women scavenged for pieces of trash they could sell. It was like what you would find if you did a Google Images search for “poverty”. A world away from the quiet village of colorful stucco houses Melkhoutfontein is now.
Anthea’s mark is all over both Stilbaai and Melkhoutfontein. A few days after arriving, she took her volunteers to the Stilbaai Museum to teach us about the rich archeological history of the Stilbaai area. Surprise surprise, we got in for free because Anthea played a role in the museum’s founding. A fairly entertaining role, in fact: Outside the museum, a massive sign proclaims “TAMED EELS – Feed an eel for 10 rand”. The sign overlooks an idyllic pond surrounded by the triple threat of barbed wire, razor wire, and an electrified fence. This is all Anthea’s brainchild. Apparently, long ago, when the estate of one of Stilbaai’s first white families went on the market, Anthea formed a coalition of prominent Stilbaaiers to buy the estate on behalf of the city and turn it into a museum. How did Anthea raise funds for the transformation of the estate into a museum? I’m glad you asked! Through a perfectly logical, time-honored course of action: She bought a bunch of juvenile eels (where from? If she told me, she’d have to kill me), stocked the pond on the estate with them, built fortifications around the pond to prevent caracals and leopards from stealing the eels, and began charging people money to feed the eels. This, allegedly, is how the museum was funded. Feeding the eels must have been the most popular tourist attraction in Stilbaai for quite a while, since 10 rand is just under a dollar. What’s more, the original eels are still in their prison-pond today, and Anthea claims that they recognize her, lifting their “beautiful” bulging blue eyes out of the water every time she feeds them. And who am I to doubt such an extraordinary person?
“Mr. Parsons Goes to Cape Town, A Short Story by Franz Kafka”
I had to go to Cape Town’s VFSGlobal visa offices at 7:30 am, because, perplexingly, they close in the mid-afternoon. I was expecting to spend a few hours there, but nobody – not the workers there, not Anthea, not me – was prepared for the 9-hour nightmare my visa extension became, in which the only way it could have gotten worse would be if I’d caught coronavirus. I stood in line for about ten minutes at the start, only to be told when I got to the front that I was standing in the wrong line, and had to go to the other line. I waited 10 minutes in that line. When my turn was up, I was asked if I’d made an appointment. I had, through VFSGlobal’s website several weeks ago, but it wasn’t showing up in their database. I was told to show them proof on my VFSGlobal account, so I tried to sign in on my phone. It didn’t take my password, so I took my laptop out of my backpack. It ran out of batteries. I went through the ordeal of changing my password. The password reset email wouldn’t show up on my phone until I managed to get a VFSGlobal employee to sign into my email on her computer, and do a sort of Möbius-strip forward-to-self. I then tried to sign in again, but it wouldn’t take my new password either. I went through the entire reset process again. It still didn’t work. One of the employees said she could fix it for me, so I happily handed over my phone to her.
She came back with a slip of paper bearing my new username and password. Told me to sign in on one of VFSGlobal’s computers, which were probably older than I am. I logged in and began entering the personal information necessary for scheduling an appointment – never mind that I’d already done that – when the computer gave me the Spinning Wheel of Death and the message “Shutting down…” I had to call a staff member over to reboot it. Logging back in, the CAPTCHA wasn’t working, preventing me from getting through, so I refreshed the page. This time, it didn’t accept my email address as valid (I checked it many, many times) so I was shuttled over to a different computer. It crashed and was unrebootable. I tried to log in on my phone, but it ran out of batteries. I plugged it in only to discover that load shedding, the daily period when all of South Africa’s electricity is shut off to allow supply to meet demand, had begun, and no further progress was possible until the power was back on. By this point, it was nearly noon, and I hadn’t even eaten breakfast. I’d brought a pack of biltong, a dried meat similar to beef jerky, though, which I was told off for eating in the waiting room. I was then told off for attempting to leave the room.
At long last the power came back, and I returned to the one remaining functional computer. This time I got in, after several CAPTCHAs (to be fair, what self-respecting computer wouldn’t think I was a robot at this point?), and put in the rest of my personal information. Then I had to pay for my appointment, at which point I made the unpleasant discovery that my mobster-style manila envelope of cash would not be accepted. VFSGlobal can’t process cash payments, despite their website telling you to “bring 1775 rand” to your appointment, strongly implying cash. I wasn’t sure if I had enough left on my card, especially since I’d bought train tickets from Cape Town to Durban, for a later trip that didn’t end up materializing, the night before. My card wasn’t declined, thank God – about the only thing that could have gone wrong but didn’t. After paying, it was time to actually put my appointment on the calendar. The Cape Town offices of VFSGlobal had no appointment slots left on the calendar for that day, nor the day after that, nor any other time within the first thirty days of my South African placement (the necessary amount of time for getting a visa extension). They did have openings, however, at VFSGlobal’s office in George, and hey, that’s closer to my placement than Cape Town is. I selected an appointment at noon in George next Monday.
Telling this to a staff member, however, he imparted the valuable piece of knowledge that the George office is not going to be open next Monday, despite my ability to book an appointment then. He offered to help me get my appointment over and done with that day. I was grateful, and followed him as he ushered me into a second waiting room, in which about half the chairs were covered with yellow caution tape. I sat down in a non-taped chair and waited. This is where my experience began to approach the surreal. Before long, a severe-looking old woman – picture a South African Dolores Umbridge – appeared behind a desk at the far end of the room.
“Move up!”, she barked.
“Excuse me?” She and I were the only people in the room.
“You are excused, young man! Move up!”
I stood up and began walking to the desk.
“No! Move up one seat!”
I sat back down in the seat one spot closer to the desk than where I had previously been sitting.
“Good! Now wait!”
I cannot emphasize this enough – we were the only people in the room. There was no queue of any sort, not that a queue would make this ridiculous game of musical chairs any more reasonable. Every few minutes, though, the woman behind the desk would announce “Move up!” and I’d shift one seat closer to her, avoiding, of course, the caution-taped seats. Eventually, I made it up to her desk.
“Why are you not saying hello to me?”, she snarled.
“That’s better. Passport, please!”
She looked at my passport, handed it back to me, requested the massive sheafs of other paperwork I’d prepared, looked at all of it, snatched my passport back out of my hands, and shoved everything indiscriminately into a battered green briefcase. I was handed the briefcase. I was handed the briefcase and told to go sit down again. After going back through the moving-up process, Ms. Umbridge took the briefcase and told me my visa extension was almost complete. My final step was to go into an elevator-sized office and get fingerprinted. It took at least five attempts on each finger, but finally the machine accepted my fingerprints. Umbridge gave me back my passport, and I was free to go. It was 4:30 p.m. VFSGlobal had closed for the day long ago. Having spent most of the last evening on a bus from Riversdale, near my placement, to Cape Town, I hadn’t eaten in nearly 24 hours; I wandered the streets in a sort of daze until at last I found a café that was open. Having looked at it out the windows of an office building for most of a day, I can confirm that Cape Town lives up to its reputation as the world’s most beautiful major city. I’m not sure I’ll be returning soon, though, even with my newly extended visa.