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.

[Picture: Halacious on Unsplash]

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  1. Communist a socialist and capitalist having a conversation, the socialist says if he wants to buy meat he has to stand in a line for six hours, the capitalist asks what is a line the communist asks what is meat.

  2. Sounds like home affairs, or the drivers licence queue.
    The drivers licence queue is my particular favourite. After many hours of disorganised shuffling, you might reach the front of the queue. (If you are VERY lucky, they will still be open). Official number one takes your form. A lengthy perusal follows. Once again you need luck to pass this stage, logic has no role to play at the DMV. You get told to go to room A. Room A is full of people. You join the line. Time passes. Your name is called, but before you can respond the official vanishes. By this time you are full of gloom, and misery. You pass through the hands of several more officials, each one gives you the look, and the sigh, before leisurely staring at your forms. Your photograph is taken (the form says you must bring your own photographs?). Your fingerprints are taken? The materials required to clean your fingers are not available? You pay, where you are given more suspicious looks. (If you are lucky, the card machine is working). You are told that you will receive a call, but if you don’t receive a call, you must phone. This is a sick joke, nobody has answered a phone at the licence department in living memory. You go home. On your way home you calculate that the process could easily be handled by two people? The job-creation idea is finally understood…..you collapse into a chair after shouting at several family members. You down several stiff drinks, and/or a handful of tablets.

    I have left several steps out in the interests of brevity.

  3. Excellent and amusing. Relatives of mine lived in Moscow for a few years and tell a very funny, albeit sad, story of the complexities of buying a bicycle. Of course there was only one size, colour etc.

  4. You should try SARS. After queuing for forty five minute, an employee of SARS sided up to me, and asked if I had got an appointment. Well that just about did me in. At seventy nine, and standing all that time, I left, never to return. We are both long retired, we do not have computers, and although have working phones, only know how the basics work. We have passed the queuing stage in our lives, and find anything to do with government, is totally inhuman, to all the people of this country.

    • A few years ago, I had a major (recurring) argument with my medical aid, who did not provide a full list of everything I had paid over the medical aid amount. The difference between their certificate and my spreadsheet was over R20000, so I claimed the actual amount spent. SARS disputed this, and wanted evidence. The total scanned documents of ALL my medical charges came to over a Gigabyte. so was written to a DVD as proof. Then I found that SARS had removed their letterboxes, so I was unable to post the envelope containing the disc directly. Because of this, I had to queue in a crowded waiting room for the one-and-only “Documents Received” window to be free. This delivery, that previously had taken only seconds to post, took about three hours. Yep – I think you’re right about ‘teaching SA to queue’!

  5. A queue is a result of the front end not working properly. usually as a result of the front end not being equipped to work properly due to:
    ineffective equipment due to inefficiency of the provider of said equipment, shortage of what you are waiting for due to inefficiency of supplier of said commodity, incompetence of the person at the front end.

    • Mostly the absence or abject laziness of 9 of the 10 persons supposed to serve the front ends. That is true for almost every service the state (or its SOEs) is supposed to provide and also true for banks (and others who are the state’s unpaid (enslaved?) agents for modern administrative controls like RICA, FICA, Covid prevention etc.). It is also true for a large percentage of checkouts at large supermarkets.
      For the state, of course, it does not only concern services, but often disservices, like forced queuing for renewal of administrative collapsibles at the shortest possible intervals in the most roundabout way to show the strong arm of administration. (Accredited optometrists could easily take your photo and e-mail it to the licensing authorities with your eye test results and a copy of your ID. They have your thumb prints already.)
      Having 150 people queuing in stead of having more attendants may save the service provider 5 person days every day at the cost of 150 person days for the economy.
      The most irritating queues are “call centers”. They force you to bear telephone costs and listen to repetitive small print, advertisements and dreadful music for hours on end.

  6. I have a theory that Marxism/ Socialism is actually a natural flaw in African DNA. All African states embrace it. All African states suffer the consequences. NO AFRICAN have rejected it.
    Not all Africans accept it, but being an exception in the midst of a socialist majority is overwhelming.

  7. I lived in Russia for 13 years from 1993 t0 2006.
    So I experienced in the early years of the collapse of Communism, This queuing, in 1993 to 1995 exactly as the writer explained. Then as the economy recovered, Investment poured back into the country, The Queues
    vanished. Now Russia Has Authoritarian rule. Don’t Buck The Government, Don’t Criticise it, and you will be allowed to operate as you wish, But one little slip, and it can all be taken away.

  8. We have sunk to the level now that every potential interaction with a government or semi-government institutions brings cold shivers and the need to put in a days leave (if one is lucky enough to be employed). Renewing car licences and drivers licences, home affairs, SARS, local municipality and even Telkom, all generate this feeling of dread.

    The PE traffic dept have the facility to make an appointment by phone for the renewal of a drivers licence. This speeds up the eye-test part of the procedure, apparently. Although this happens in a fraction of the usual time, great!, one has to then join the “regular” queue for the tellers; so you could sit there for hours waiting to pay. My scheduled time was this past Saturday @ 14h30. After enduring the Covid sign-in forms and joining the queue of other “14h30 scheduled applicants”, we were approached to say that there was a power failure and that none of the machines were operational; “could I come back next Saturday?”.

    Safricans are not only up against incompetent bureaucracies but also crumbling infrastructure – the afore-mentioned regular power failures – rendering other services unable to perform. After a couple of hours in the home affairs queue last year, staff behind the counter started packing up and leaving, no announcement, no nothing. I managed to ask one before they rushed headlong for the door what was going on; “we have no water due to a municipal pipe burst and we cannot work. You will have to come back”. This is Port Elizabeth, not some backwater rural home affairs shed in the middle of nowhere.

    I applied for a vault birth certificate in September 2019. It remains unfound to this day, 23 November 2020 despite NUMEROUS calls and emails and EVEN correspondence with the Deputy Director General Civic Services himself, Thomas Sigama (who you’d think could get something done, not so?). I thought I had hit the jackpot with his contact details, but even his email replies to me copying in colleagues and sub-ordinates, have yielded precisely ZERO results, nada, nothing after more than a month.

    Prior to Andrew’s article, I had not made the connection between communism and queue’s. With our government’s commitment to the Marxist NDR, I am even more despondent now, as the likelihood of the birth certificate ever materialising, seem more slender than ever.

  9. The story about the vehicle licence discs seems to be an artifact of “The Independent Republic of the Western Cape”. In Gauteng, the alternative is a 20 minute queue at the Post Office, or a two-plus hour wait at the Traffic Department offices. Driving licence renewals are, however, another matter: exclusively Traffic Dept.

    • Indeed Tony. I renewed my vehicle licence at the Post Office (in Gauteng) a week ago. Luckily, I am fairly well trained, so I had cash and card available. The person who assisted me was polite and helpful. I was asked to insert my card in the machine, but sadly it was ‘offline’. Whisked out my cash, the deal was relatively quickly done.
      A stroll in the countryside compared to the driver licence renewal process. The latter is like walking through a minefield.
      Yesterday I was walking past the Post Office, noticed it was deserted, went and renewed my P O Box. Card machine was working, same polite person helped me. Only problem was terribly slow response of the online ‘system’. Suspect a tender was involved?


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