Under the watchful and ever-lazy eye of Jacob Zuma, they toil. His mug beams down upon them along with the unknown (to me at least) Fatima Chohan who serves as the Deputy Minister of Home Affairs.

It is not for the faint-hearted being a Home Affairs employee.  Their place of work is usually hot, stuffy and packed with bodies all radiating heat and irritation. They would be forgiven for being lethargic, lacking passion and over-shooting their breaks. But none of this is true – not where we visit at any rate.

If there is indeed a hell I imagine it will be just like Home Affairs. The place has all the characteristics of Dante’s Inferno; it is mercilessly hot, one glimpses eternity and it is utterly devoid of all soul. Now, it is bad enough going to such a place once every decade or so to renew a passport or replace a stolen ID, but just imagine the torture of working there every day of your life!

In the case of the Home Affairs office we visit, we learn that you must get there no later than 5:00am if you wish to secure a place in the queue. Now this is early – especially If you are renewing your 6-year-old child’s passport too.  Even then, by the time you get into the waiting hall itself – a largish room with metal seats –  it is well after 8:00am.

The staff are in place and waiting for the onslaught; several hundred people all in various stages of physical and mental breakdown and emotional despair. By the way, this breakdown includes severe dehydration because there are no toilets for public use at Home Affairs Kwa-Dukuza. Consequently, nobody drinks anything even in the searing heat. By the time we get our work done it is well after 11:00am. So, we have neither drunk nor peed for 6 odd hours since leaving home. For others this must be 10 hours at least. It is inhumane and needs urgent addressing.

I wonder how long a Home Affairs worker lasts in their job? To have to deal with people in these conditions day in and day out must take its toll in a big way. They are getting it from all sides.

By the way, if you are moneyed you can avoid the whole queuing annoyance altogether. What we noticed is that well off folk pay someone else to queue for them. Then they pull up in their SUV’s just before 8:00am and dismiss the hot and hapless person queuing for them and take their place, slipping them a few bucks for their efforts. We saw this happen many times. Suffice to say it doesn’t breed very good camaraderie between classes.

After the information guy and the photo/fingerprints gent, we deal with 3 people who are at the business end of the applications. I am guessing that these are the employees that take the brunt of people’s wrath because they are the ones that must inform you that despite your gruelling 6-hour wait you will have to come back because you have forgotten something vital like a certified copy of your deceased father’s underpants. However, this is when the excellence really kicks in.

We complete our daughter’s application in double quick time and are then passed efficiently to another person because the first person’s computer is suddenly on a go slow. Even this is a surprise. Surely at Home Affairs they just wait out the go slow? No. They make a plan. The second person is all over my application. It is complete in about 5 minutes flat. But then it comes: “Do you have R140 on you?”. I respond suspiciously by saying we have paid online and demand to know why he needs more money? “Because I see you haven’t done your photocard ID yet Sir, and we have all your information here for your passport application. If you can pay the amount, I can get my Supervisor to authorise it here and now.”

The Supervisor – a friendly lady who takes real flack when dealing with the people in the queue – does not hesitate to assist. Within 5 minutes I have been e-mailed proof of application for both my passport and my ID. I thank him most sincerely: “This is Home Affairs and we are doing our best” he replies humbly.

I want to publicly honour the staff of the Kwa-Dukuza Home Affairs office in particular Nkosinathi Ngwane, Nirasha Gopee and Supervisor Suraifa Abdool. Like so many people in our country, they go above and beyond to serve the citizens of our nation. Next time you find yourself in Home Affairs, join the queue with all the rest of us and remember to thank those people whose hot and thankless job it is to man the gates of hell.

Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency

His writing is dedicated to the memory of Anene Booysens, Emmanuel Josias Sithole and Suna Venter