Whenever I think of socialism, I think of long queues. Socialism, of course, is just state control, where a ruling class tells everybody else what to do, and what they tell them to do above all else is to stand in queues.
In the Soviet Union – officially, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics – ordinary people had to spend hours each day in queues. To get an idea of what shopping was like under Communism, imagine Woolworths being run by the Department of Home Affairs.
Suppose word got out in Russia that a certain shop had some rare and exotic commodity, say tomatoes. You would join a long queue and after some hours reach a counter where you would say you would like to buy five tomatoes. You would be told that nobody was allowed more than three tomatoes. You would order three tomatoes and get a chit for them. You would then join another long queue to pay for your three tomatoes. Hours later you would hand over your chit and your money, and get a receipt for your three tomatoes. Then you would join another long queue and finally hand over your receipt and collect your three tomatoes.
Many high-minded socialists in the West, admirers of Communist Russia, thought this was a jolly good system, good for ordinary people. (Of course, the Communist elite never queued; there were special shops for them.) The idea of ordinary people going to a capitalist shop stocked with a huge variety of goods and quickly paying for whatever they liked seemed vulgar and offensive, horribly consumerist, unfitting for low-class people.
System was down
This week I had to replace my vehicle licences for my motorbike (a 1981 Yamaha XT500, which I’ve had for 38 years) and my car (a 1984 Suzuki SJ410, which I’ve had for 20 years). I live near Fish Hoek in Cape Town and applied to renew my licences online. I was told I should get my online application in two days. Two weeks later nothing had happened. I went down to the Fish Hoek Traffic Department in person. I got there a quarter of an hour before it opened at 08h00, and saw a queue about three-hundred metres long, snaking out in front of the offices. Some people had been queuing since 05h30. Some had been queuing for the second day. I spoke to a friendly official and told her about my online attempt. She laughed and said the online system was down. How amusing! Even more amusing is the fact that the City of Cape Town urges people to apply online but doesn’t tell them that the online system isn’t working. But she also told me there was a special queue, much shorter, for pensioners. I felt a bit guilty about this as I am able-bodied but not guilty enough not to take advantage of it.
In just over an hour I reached the counter. I handed over my old licence forms, showed my ID, paid, and within a minute the computer printed out my new licences. When I came out I saw a friend in the main queue and spoke to her. Much later in the day she phoned me to tell me it had taken her five and a half hours to get her licence. I wondered why she had had to queue for five and a half hours for a procedure that takes one minute. I grew up in Fish Hoek in the 1950s, long before the computer age, when my parents never had to queue long to renew a licence. Have computers slowed everything down? Will the Fourth Industrial Revolution cause even longer queues? Will the super-fast computers produce super-slow inefficiency? Or is there some deeper reason, inherent in state control and government departments that produces inexorable movement towards more and more bureaucracy, longer and longer queues?
I had had a similar experience earlier on in the year, before Covid-19, when renewing my SA Passport.
Liberation brings queues
A striking characteristic of almost all post-colonial African countries is long queues for everything. Liberation brings queues. At Beit Bridge, truck drivers queue for days to cross the border. Look at the queues of poor people collecting social grants. There are long queues at all our government-run hospitals – except of course for ANC ministers, who are quickly whisked to the front of the queue on the rare occasions they use the state health system. For now, rich people can choose to use private hospitals and clinics. National Health Insurance will end this and force everyone, except ANC politicians, to stand in long queues at state hospitals. To see what all our hospitals will look under NHI, just look at the hospitals in the Eastern Cape today.
Maybe this is how South Africa will end, not with a bang, not with a whimper, but with half of the population working for the government and the other half standing in a long queue for its compulsory services.
The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR
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