I had been this way many times before. Applying for my first passport, getting another one for my wife, one for my daughter and recently when I accompanied a friend to get her daughter’s passport.
Nothing seems to have changed. There is the same organised chaos at the entrance, orchestrated by touts to extract dollars off hassled passport seekers; over-optimistic vendors selling everything from airtime to non-existent queue places, pens to passport covers; and the same decrepit registrar general officials clutching their pens and markers, ordering smart queues before they endorse application documents with a number that ushers you into the corridors of their offices.
Huddled between Hebert Chitepo Avenue in the north, Leopold Takawira in the east, Girls High School and Harare Street in the west, the Harare Passport Office is a place of dread for many Harareans. Upon arrival, it is not hard to see why. As early as 4am, pushing and shoving becomes the order of day as passport seekers scream and shout to be the first to be served.
There are unbearable queues that zigzag many times into the corridors of the buildings that have seen no renovations for decades. The many meandering queues quickly take their toll on peoples’ patience as they are turned from one door to the next by ill-tempered and discouraged civil servants. Many times passport seekers have to mind their language or risk being ignored for any slight mix-up or misread language can bring instant punishment or the humiliation of being chucked to the back of the queue. In other instances, officials snap angrily at those who find themselves in the wrong office or block the path in the stifling and crowded interior.
Often hunger pangs spark tempers already hanging by a thread. For those who can afford a meal, makeshift takeaways can be found along Harare Street. The elderly, pregnant or disabled do not receive special attention and just have to wait their turn. Worse still, they have to contend with issues relating to running water and ablution facilities, practically non-existent.
The Registrar General’s (RG) office has touted transferring the passport business to the new offices but the move to the new buildings has been blocked due to non-completion.
Over the years, RG Tobaiwa Mudede has given assurances that the public would benefit from the computerisation of his offices to improve efficiency and reduce time spent at the offices.
He announced that part of the computerisation of his office would introduce ‘a top-of-the-line SMS solution’ and has developed unique applications, which will enable the RG to give better service to the Zimbabwean citizen. To date, the only notable thing about the new system has been the sending of SMS messages to passport applicants to collect their documents.
Mudede also proudly announced that Zimbabweans wishing to apply for passports could download application forms on the internet, fill them in online before submitting them at the passport office for a US$3 fee. However, the forms have proved impossible to download.
Harare businessman Obay Jiya, complains that, “nothing seems to be improving.” He believes that this has led people to resort to getting their passport elsewhere other than the Harare office.“If you are in business you cannot endure the long process of queues; buying the forms at the RG’s office and joining queues to submit the forms and have fingerprints taken. That’s a waste of business time.”
He added, “A typical online passport system would enable people to download forms online, pay passport fees electronically, make appointments for submission and collection, and only get to the passport offices at the appointed time when they are booked to collect their passport.”
An ordinary passport costs US$50 and takes four to six weeks to process; an emergency passport takes three days at a cost of US$250, while an executive passport takes a day at US$315.