POSSESSION of a passport at the height of the country’s lost economic decade between 2000 and 2010 had become more than a gate pass to better career opportunities and a new life far away from home.
Hordes of people literally camped at Makombe Building as they sought to acquire travelling documents. Others were forced to keep vigil with the owls as they slept in queues hoping to be early enough to successfully apply for their passports.
Sally Machemedze (30) of Highfield acquired her passport in this milieu. She recalls the price she had to pay — which went beyond the official price of acquiring the travel document pegged at $52.
“I had to sleep in the queue at Makombe Building,” said Machemedze, who has been working in South Africa since 2009. “I wanted to be early so that I would be served. It was a nightmare.”
She was surprised when she came to Zimbabwe late last year for a visit that there had been a paradigm shift at the Passport Office as people were now walking in and out, having been served, within a few hours.
This was Luckson Marira’s experience in the last two months. He could not believe how easy it had become to acquire a passport.
“For a long time I thought I would perhaps bribe someone so that I can have my passport without any hassles,” he admitted.
He added that he confided in a friend with a cousin at the passport office that he was prepared to fork out an extra $20 and acquire his travelling document easily.
“Someone, however, told me it was not necessary, so I just decided to go there and experience it for myself,” he said.
A new order at Makombe Building
Marira crossed Samora Machel Avenue at about 5.45pm, walking along Harare Street on the day he had decided to go and apply for his passport. He saw a handful of people at a building close by.
“Are you going to the passport office? The queue starts here,” someone called out to him.
He enquired with an elderly lady in the queue and she confirmed that was the queue to the passport office.
A handful of young men, with their paraphernalia ready, were taking passport pictures and he promptly had his taken at a cost of $5.
“They no longer want people to queue at Makombe Building before the gates have been opened,” a young woman in the queue told him.
Given what he had been told, he feared that while queue was unbelievably short, it was probably going to swell as more people who would have greased some officials’ palms would arrive as this had been the culture at the passport office for many years.
About an hour later, at around 6.45am, the queue started moving orderly until it reached Makombe Building. At exactly 7 O’clock, the staff started serving people in the queue. Everything was so orderly and the staff so friendly Marira found it almost unbelievable.
He was ushered from one office to the next until the process was complete and at almost 9 o’clock, he was walking out of Makombe complex.
“Before the month was even over I received a text message on my phone saying my passport was ready for collection,” he said.
This was a departure from what had become the norm, with National Assembly Speaker Jacob Mudenda in November last year decrying the long queues that had become a permanent feature at the passport offices.
He described the situation as an insult to human dignity.
Speaking during the launch of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) Nationality and Statelessness Handbook for parliamentarians in Harare, Mudenda said: “MPs need to push for speedy processing of passports for citizens because it is a right — it is not a privilege, and long queues are an affront to human dignity as it is wrong to have a cumbersome process of getting passports and other identity documents.”
Mudenda said the Legislature should come up with laws to ensure acquisition of passports was easy.
Recollections of the past
I still recall some time in October 2010, passing by Makombe Building. A middle-aged woman leaned against the fence, half her body covered with a wrapping cloth, as she tried to make herself comfortable.
It was just after six o’clock in the evening and darkness was slowly setting in, drawing more people into the nocturnal queue.
She would have preferred a night in the comfort of her home, but that “all-night session” was a sacrifice that would help her reap innumerable benefits.
She had to be among the early birds who would be lucky enough to be served and get that all-important document that had almost become the lease to her life.
“I don’t want to talk to you,” she said to me, drawing her small bag closer to her, after I had approached her.
Thieves reportedly abounded, targeting those desperados.
“I just want to get my passport and go,” she said reluctantly.
Despite repeated efforts to extract more information from her, she refused to budge, but cracked a little.
“I hold a high position at work and it would not be good for my boss to find out that I’m here,” she said. She had skipped work claiming she was sick.
Here was a married woman, braving the night at the Registrar-General’s (RG) Office, just to acquire a basic document that is every citizen’s right.
In the same queue was another woman, who identified herself as Vimbiso. She was more forthcoming, perhaps hoping for an outlet to pour out her pent-up frustrations.
She had travelled from Marondera two days ago after reading in the newspapers that passport prices had been slashed to an affordable $50.
But, quickly, she learnt that in as much as the passport prices
had been slashed, it was going take much more than that amount to hold the travel document in her hands.
“I was late when I came the day before yesterday,” she said, “so I spent the night at a friend’s place.
“But that was a mistake because by the time I got here, the queue was so long I failed to get the passport.”
She had assumed that since the passports were now cheaper, she would just come and get one and kick-start her cross-border trading business.
“Now I have to sleep here tonight,” she says, pulling a small blanket from her bag, perhaps as irrevocable proof of her claim. “I have to get that passport and get back home.”
As a married woman, she admitted that her husband would not take it kindly if information leaked to him that she had slept outside the Registrar-General’s Office fence.
“It’s just one of those things you’ll make sure he’ll not find about,” she said with a laugh. “All I need is to get that passport.”
This were familiar tales, which were enough to make many, including myself, reluctant to go to Makombe Building to either acquire, or renew, expired passports.
These women’s experiences were all I needed to shelve my own plans to renew my outdated passport. But a month ago, I really felt I needed to have a new passport and, together with my wife, decided to go to Makombe Building.
Registrar-General crafts new work ethic
Many people have expressed shock at how staff at the RG’s Office were now efficient and have prioritised customer service.
The RG’s Office intensified the issuance of passports last year in a bid to cope with the increasing demand for travel documents.
The move saw them issuing an average of 2 241 passports a day up from 1 936 in 2012.
Registrar-General Tobaiwa Mudede last year confirmed that the modus operandi at the passport office had changed for the better.
“We are issuing passports within a day and in three days,” he said during a Press conference. “The other passport is presently issued within four weeks from the standard time of six months.”
This is a departure from the past where corruption had become the order of the day at the passport office.
Former MP David Coltart recently experienced the new wave at the passport office and was “pleasantly surprised”.
Following the theft of a briefcase containing four family passports, he dreaded the prospect of having to apply for new passports.
“I have to say that I was very pleasantly surprised by what I found,” he said, adding that he was treated with courtesy efficiency.
“The following day the entire process was completed in a similar way. I found all the staff friendly and committed to providing an efficient service.”
He said the team at the passport office was leading by example in the country’s civil service.
Some passport seekers, however, have expressed concern over the unavailability of application forms on the passport office’s website.