I had a friend stay with me for a few days last week. I hadn’t seen him in years. He hasn’t aged much and weighs the same as he did when he was 21. I told him he probably had that weird disease where you suddenly get old and fat overnight, which made me feel better about myself.
He said he was seriously considering dropping out. He lives in Maun, a fragmented boondock in Botswana where amphibians outnumber people. It lurks on the fetid fringe of the delta, a dystopian swamp infested with wild beasts that want you dead.
To most people, that would constitute dropping out. But not him. He means right out. Down the rabbit hole and off the radar. No more queuing for permission to drive this, own that, live here, go there. No more filling in forms or sending off applications. No more requesting permission to exist. A subsistence existence beyond the law.
He strongly recommended I do the same. Later, after a few beers, he strongly recommended that I try something called dimethyltryptamine. Surprisingly, I’d never heard of DMT. Or maybe I had. Maybe I’d taken it a bunch of times but couldn’t remember. Tricky things, drugs. I’m sure I’d remember, though.
After first smoking DMT, American psychonaut Terrence McKenna said he entered “a magical place inhabited by self-transforming machine elves made of light and language, where the totality of phenomenal existence was experienced in a terrifying transpersonal flash”. Not your average Friday night at the club, then.
Dropping out has never appealed to me more than it has this week. Allow me to introduce to you the Verulam vehicle licensing department, the Fifth Circle of Hell where sullen members of the law abiding citizenry are punished for their sins.
Verulam was here before any of us, but that doesn’t give it the right to behave badly. The town, incidentally, was named after the Earl of Verulam, patron of the British Methodists who settled there in 1850, and not, as I always thought, after the legendary shad fisherman Bobby “Crusher” Verulam.
Who knows why the eThekwini municipality chose to put this particular office in the epicenter of a never-ending tropical storm of people, traffic and general pavement-based mayhem. Perhaps it wasn’t always like that. Perhaps government departments simply become catalysts for chaos over time.
The home affairs office in Pinetown, for instance, is the place to go if you want a passport and a screwdriver in your ribs. A few days ago, well-known ANC suck-up Visvin Reddy was stabbed not far from home affairs. The last time his wife visited the office, she was also mugged. Maybe it’s a Reddy thing, but it doesn’t look like it. Last year a man set himself and his wife on fire outside the same office. By all accounts, it’s like Aleppo without the benefit of UN-supervised safe passage back to your car.
I’ve been to Verulam six times in the past fortnight to transfer a new car into my name and deregister my stolen Corolla. It’s making me physically ill. I want to vomit when I wake up and realise that I have to go to Verulam again.
This is how it should work. You buy a new car and want to put it in your name. The first scenario is that you drive to an aesthetically pleasing complex near your home, get waved to a shaded parking bay, then ushered into a spacious air-conditioned hall where you are dealt with efficiently and pleasantly. You’re out of there in minutes. You are rewarded for doing the right thing.
The second scenario is that you drive deep into the hinterland on a heavily potholed road where you risk being set upon by homicidal maniacs armed with rusty pangas at every stop street, negotiate with jumpy yellow-eyed drug addicts for a place to park outside a building located in the worst part of a bad town, find your way to a room with no ventilation and take your place in a queue of fifty grim-faced desperadoes, each with his own unique olfactory imprint, shout through thick bombproof glass at a gormless, gum-chewing, clock-watching sloth who communicates through grunts, sighs and eye-rolls, fill in reams of forms, find somewhere in town to make photocopies and get instructed to return in three weeks, upon which you are told your forms have gone astray and you will need to start the process all over again. At the end, as a reward for your tenacity, you are given a special licence to drive as fast as you want and park wherever you like.
But there is no first scenario. There is only the second, and it doesn’t end with permission to be Mad Max, either. The punishment we suffer to comply with the law is often more severe than not complying.
Turning into Wick Street, my heart literally sinks. I can feel it pounding against my liver. Maybe that is my liver. Things are tolerable up until Phoenix Funerals. Then cars and taxis begin converging like rats on a baby dove. They come from all angles and directions. Your feet tap dance on the brake and accelerator pedals and there’s a squirt of adrenalin as you swerve to miss the bag of rags stumbling from the Greencat Bar. From there it’s all downhill.
Parking in central Verulam is an existential concept. It exists but it doesn’t. This is the home of Schrodinger’s parking bay. Stop and shop seems to be the rule. Double park, triple park, leave your car in the middle of the road – it’s all good. You drive on whichever side of the road happens to be unobstructed. Don’t worry about the solid white line. It’s there to help drunks find their way home.
Wick Street becomes the Congo River and the Verulam Regional Centre my personal heart of darkness. Through a miasma of exhaust fumes, I see it up ahead. It squats sullenly above Mia’s Pick ‘a Bite and Habib’s Fast Foods. The horror.
The municipal sign says, “Sizakala”. This is Zulu for, “Abandon all hope ye who enter here.” No, that can’t be right. It’s too long. Although if “Gedleyihlekisa” means “He who laughs while grinding his enemies, stealing taxpayer’s money, sleeping with your daughter and causing his party to lose votes”, then I suppose anything is possible.
I spot a near empty parking lot behind an open gate on the opposite side of the road and pull in. The Congo can only be crossed by a carefully choreographed sequence involving three pirouettes, two bunny hops, an arabesque and that thing bullfighters do.
The portals to hell are flanked by Zulu clothes sellers. The sellers are Zulu, not the clothes. I have seen Zulu clothes. They don’t involve much more than bits of leopard and monkey and beaded loincloth. That’s fine for the Reed Dance but this is a peri-urban purgatorial paradise and people want to look as if they’re meeting the Earl of Verulam himself for tea and a white pipe later in the day. Fair enough.
The sign at the entrance to the hideous face brick building prohibits guns, animals and smoking. I walk in, expecting to find the place awash in gambling, drinking and fornicating. If you don’t expressly forbid South Africans from doing something, they will do it.
“But, officer, the sign doesn’t say human sacrifices aren’t allowed.”
“Okay, fine. Just clean up the blood afterwards. But the dog must wait outside.”
There’s one window marked Metro Police Fines Processing. It looks abandoned. Then there are two windows for Enquiries Motor Licensing. I have been to both. Repeatedly. See previous reference to useless, clock-watching sloth. These are the Harry Potter counters, where paperwork disappears into thin air. Where one hands over ones documents with the same feeling one gets when one goes to insert a USB, instinctively sensing you’re doing it wrong and will have to try again.
Last week you had to have duplicates – this week it’s triplicates. Last week a thumbprint was enough – this week it’s a DNA sample.
Then there’s a line of four cashier windows. This is the Holy Grail for those who seek something stamped. The Lourdes Grotto for the sick-to-death of queuing. The Wailing Wall for those who have given up wailing and are now sitting with their heads in their hands. The head-holders are the ones on the wooden bench right at the back. It takes an hour to progress to the plastic chairs. Of the four windows, one is heavily boarded up as if a tornado warning were in effect, another is devoid of life and the third is on early lunch or late breakfast. Everyone on the deck of HMS Doomed watches the fourth window like hungry people watch fat people eat. It’s a mixture of envy and disgust, if you were wondering.
Every fifteen minutes, everyone crouch-shuffles one seat closer to nirvana. Obviously I don’t because I’m busy taking notes. The security guard taps me on the shoulder and indicates that I need to move 30cm to my right. So this is how queues work? It happens more than once. He clearly thinks I’m retarded. I’m the only white person here. I must be retarded. Where are the others? Perth?
I don’t make it to the plastic chairs. I turn to the Indian fellow next to me. “I’m sorry,” I say. “I just can’t do this.” He smiles and nods, sad that I’m giving up but glad that he is one place closer to window four, the kingdom of heaven where unicorns romp and prance in the Elysian Fields of Bureaucracy.
A bag of DMT and a shack on the outskirts of Maun might be the way to go. Bring on the elves.