International Bureaucracy

I am posting this today, as it is a monumental day in the Bear household. Nkosinathi finally has his British passport, see…

We have worked so hard to get to this point when, really, we shouldn’t have. It has taken 3 months to get this passport. 3 months of going back and forth with the Passport Office. And all because of some bloody plastic.

Plastic, you say? OK, let’s go back to the beginning. Brace yourself, as it’s a long story…

My son Nathi, as I’m sure I have mentioned before, was born in Manzini, Swaziland, in December 2016, rather unexpectedly and dramatically. It took us a number of weeks to obtain the correct documents for him to be returned home to the UK (via South Africa) and, to be honest, you’d have thought he was a middle-aged convicted criminal what with all of the paperwork, phonecalls, emails (which was very difficult in rural Swaziland) and appointments, and downright faff we had to deal with at the various Embassies, Home Affairs and High Commissions.

We received Nathi’s papers upon leaving the hospital, including his medical record card and various letters from the hospital that were required in order to extend my own visa, which had expired while I was in hospital recovering from the birth. We needed the record card and other documents in order to obtain the birth certificate from the Registrar in Mbabane, which we managed to do soon after leaving the hospital.

In terms of getting Nathi home to the UK, we needed to travel via South Africa, so then had to work out which visas, passports, documents we needed to apply for, and where we needed to go to get them (and how long it would take).

So, for entry into South Africa, we needed to have an emergency passport (which would actually get him right through to the UK), as well as a visa for Nathi to enter the country at the border. We found out that there weren’t any emergency passport documents available in the whole of Swaziland, as they were waiting for a shipment from (guess where) the UK, which wasn’t due until after Christmas (They had outsourced the printing). This issue was affecting a lot of people in Swaziland right before the Christmas holidays, especially newly-graduated students who wanted to continue their education in South Africa in the new year, and anyone travelling to and from South Africa to see family at Christmas. So, we really thought we were at the end of a very long queue at this stage, with no idea of when we could obtain the travel document for Nathi. So, for the time being, we were staying in Swaziland indefinitely.

Now, I can’t remember exactly how this happened, but the Swazi Home Affairs were actually willing and able to help us with our request, despite the lack of papers in the whole country. We were given an appointment with the Chief Immigration Officer at Home Affairs. Before we arrived, we needed a photograph of Nathi, as well as all of the documents and birth certificate. A photo with his eyes open. He was literally only a couple of weeks old. We tried everything to get him to open his eyes – Removing clothes, splashing water in his face, shining lights on him, sitting him up, making loud noises. Eventually, we just about got the photo we needed. So, we took it to Home Affairs. We met the Chief Immigration Officer, a rather strong woman with a natty uniform, and a plaque with her title on the door. She had the bigger desk in the office, which she shared with her assistant. I remember the assistant joking that she thought I was just carrying a bag when it was, in fact, a sling which held a very teeny Nathi. The CIO wanted to see him, to check the photo was a true likeness, and even take his thumbprint for the document. We even had to determine his eye colour. But, one thing that the CIO did which was extremely kind, and I think very rare, was to leave the date blank on the document so that it could be completed once we knew when we had Nathi’s visa from the SA High Commission, therefore knowing the date we would be arriving in the UK. She asked us to come back once we had our UK arrival date confirmed, and she would fill in the date for us. On the form, it stated that the document expired upon arrival in the UK.

Are you keeping up? (I don’t even know if I am!)

So, my partner then went to the SA High Commission and applied for Nathi’s visa to get him through South Africa. It would be valid for 30 days, so we had a bit of leeway in terms of when we could travel. He waited for hours at the High Commission, who only open their doors for 2 hours each morning, then close them in order to spend the rest of the day dealing with all the people who managed to sardine themselves into the lobby before the doors were locked behind them. Most of these ‘sardines’ had been waiting in a queue since the early hours of the morning. My partner was successful after hours of waiting, and was told to then come back in 2 weeks when the visa would be ready. He had submitted a lot of paperwork to them, including the original travel document from Swazi Home Affairs.

Then, my partner had a job in Malawi for 2 weeks. In his absence, I had to sort out an extension on my and Khaya’s visas. In order to get this extension, we needed a letter from our host, Mamkhulu (my partner’s amazing aunt), explaining that we were in her care during our stay in Swaziland. Mamkhulu is almost completely blind, and can’t read or write anymore. I handwrote the letter, after discussions about what should be included, and then Mamkhulu signed using her thumbprint and an inkpad. I made sure we had all of the documents we needed for the visa extension, even putting them in order, and then we had to get a photo of myself and of Khaya to complete the application (By now, they knew us pretty well at the photo shop). I was having a particularly bad time coping with everything, and I think I was looking for a release, which came in the form of a lady at the Home Affairs who was not very welcoming. She actually made me cry. But, my wonderful sister-in-law stepped in and made it all better! She spoke to the lady in siSwati, and mentioned my partner’s name, then all was well with the world (He tends to have this effect on people). The lady had met him recently, and remembered him. She demanded that we have two copies of the letter from Mamkhulu – One for my application, and one for Khaya’s. I was distraught at the idea of having to go back and do the letter one more time, and bother Mamkhulu for another signature. But, after seeing another applicant, the lady then told me that I could just photocopy the letter at a stall outside the building. Which I did. I still have no idea why she didn’t say that in the first place. She then gave us some temporary documents, and told us to come back in a couple of weeks when the proper documents would be available. I don’t think they ever asked us for payment for these extensions. Clearly we were being looked down on that day. It didn’t feel like it at the time, I must say (but, that’s another story altogether – It was my biggest ‘meltdown day’ to date).

We then tried to go to the SA High Commission to collect the visa for Nathi, but it was closed. It ended up that my partner went to do this once he returned from Malawi, so it would have been about a month after the application was made (ie. plenty of time for them to process it). He managed to get in to collect the visa, but they told him that there was no record of it being processed, and they didn’t have the Swazi emergency travel document any more. They had lost it. But, they still said that they couldn’t process the visa because the date on the travel document was left blank. No-one had bothered to contact us about this. It was like something out of a very frustrating sitcom. I remember that phonecall from my partner so well. So, we didn’t have a visa and we now didn’t have the emergency travel document. We were essentially right back at square one, after two months since Nathi’s birth.

I told the British High Commission in South Africa all about it. In fact, here is a snippet of my email to them:

“We are currently reconsidering our options in terms of applying for the emergency travel document or the full UK passport for Nathi (which we know we will have to do at some point anyway). We, today, have had a major setback regarding his South African visa, meaning that we will have to apply for not only the visa again, but the emergency travel document from the Swaziland government as well. Talk about going back to square one! It means that we still cannot leave Swaziland with Nathi, and will more than likely have to delay our flights even further.”

We had already been in contact with the British High Commission but, as they were based in Pretoria and really only seemed to deal with Brits in South Africa, not Swaziland, we thought we had to sort out the paperwork first to just allow us to get Nathi into South Africa so that we could then focus on the SA-to-UK leg of the journey. We were trying to get ahead with that part, using the wonderful internet to send copies of documents to the British High Commission for the application for an emergency passport. They needed my birth certificate as part of the application, a copy of which my dad had to obtain from Southampton Register Office back in the UK (which would have been quicker than looking for the original copy in my flat), and send it to me in Swaziland, which ended up only taking 5 days. We also needed to confirm our flight dates, which we ended up booking for a way in advance, as we had big reservations about how long the application process would take for this document (especially after our fun with the SA High Commission losing documents and not keeping us up-to-date about things). After the conversation with the British High Commission about the loss of the visa and travel document, I had a call from them. The lady I had been chatting to on email was called Marilena and, well, she may as well have been wearing a halo and wings. She simply said ‘We can get him a document which will cover his travel from Swaziland to the UK via South Africa’. She had originally misunderstood who the visa was for and, when she realised it was for Nathi, she basically said everything we wanted to hear. I remember exactly where I was when we had this conversation. It was the most amazing phone call ever – I’ll never forget it. The clouds literally parted. I even asked, ‘But, what if we need to spend a few days in South Africa?’ She replied, ‘That’s fine. Just give us the date you’re leaving Swaziland and the date you’re leaving South Africa, and we can add them to the document’. So, we planned our leaving date (my birthday) and kept flights booked for the following week. It turned out that my partner and Khaya didn’t come home with us, resulting in a 6-week separation, which was hard, especially as it included Khaya’s second birthday. That was heartbreaking. But, we couldn’t imagine me flying with two under two with only one seat between us. It made sense for Khaya to stay with his Baba and for Nathi and I to travel on our own together. His emergency passport arrived within the time that they said, and we had to collect it from a very nice British Commissioner who was based in an office near Mbabane. Sadly, when Nathi and I arrived at Heathrow, they retained his emergency passport, as it was only valid for that one journey. I wish we could have kept it. Luckily, I had a note of the passport number which we would need for the British passport application once we got home.

So, this seems like a good time to revisit the plastic. What could that all be about, I hear you shout? Well, Nathi’s birth certificate was presented to us in Swaziland as an A4 blue piece of card with the details printed on it, then signed by the Registrar. It had also been laminated. It is something that they do as standard, and it is a way of preserving the documents and making them more robust. It’s a very, very good idea for a document that has to last you a lifetime. Especially in a hot country where ink can smudge over time (I don’t know if that last bit is necessarily true; it was just something logical that I thought up to make me sound like I know what I’m talking about).

We found out, about a week after sending off the passport application here in the UK, that they don’t accept laminated or photocopied documents. Supposedly, even if they’re the originals. This was the only birth certificate we had for Nathi, and the only certified copies we had were photocopies. After the initial letter telling us that the birth certificate was unacceptable, we sent them everything we had, and told them as much. It still wasn’t acceptable. Then, in the second letter, they said something that just made me laugh through the livid teeth-grinding, as follows:

“If you are unwilling to travel to Swaziland to obtain a replacement document that is unlaminated then we will accept a letter from the Swazi authorities (eg. from the Swazi embassy in London) confirming the enclosed laminated document as authentic.”

UNWILLING?! We can’t travel to Swaziland without a passport for our infant son, which we are trying to obtain from you (mainly for the purposes of travelling to and from Swaziland), but you’re saying that we need another, unlaminated, birth certificate from… yep… Swaziland. We can’t just leave him at home on his own, can we. He needs me to feed him, amongst other necessary things to remain alive. And, what if the next original copy we get is laminated as well? What if they won’t allow us to have an unlaminated one? Believe me, if we could have done it, we would have by now (My partner even tried when he went back to Southern Africa a month ago, but found out we both had to be present). We certainly weren’t unwilling! (So many italics, I apologise). I felt like writing back to them, saying something like ‘Please think about what you just said. How about, instead, you accept that some countries’ birth certificates are different to the ones issued in the UK, which can include laminated A4 blue card ones’. If only I’d had the guts. Instead, we made an appointment to see the Swazi embassy in London (who were amazing, and said that this happens A LOT), and we managed to finally get the passport granted with help from our letter from the embassy.

PHEW. I started this process in March, after being separated from my partner and eldest son in order to get back to the UK to get his passport sorted ASAP. It took longer than if we’d applied through the British High Commission while we were still in Swaziland, which was an option at the time. But, it’s all done now. You live and learn. And, by golly, have we done that!

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