Hillstar Traffic Dept, OtteryWow. Yesterday I spent five long hours getting my driver’s licence renewed at Hillstar in Ottery.

FIVE HOURS. That’s 3-and-a-half hours on my feet, just to get inside the building, another hour or so playing musical chairs on the temporary seating provided inside, and the last half hour having the obligatory eye test, getting fingerprints taken and finally paying for the whole exciting experience.

FIVE HOURS. That gives you a lot of time to watch the proceedings, and it became a bit of a game, figuring out how long each bit would take (1 hour to that piece of pavement, another one to the part without shade, and so on).

Judging from a photo I took when I was at the back of the queue, I’d estimate that there were about 50 people standing outside Hillstar when I joined the line at 10am. As I discovered many hours later, inside there are 7 rows of 5 chairs each, so that’s another 35 people in the sitting line. Plus, there’s a short queue (in length, though certainly not in duration) between the door and said chairs.

So, let’s add another 15 in there and round it up to 100 people standing in line in front of me. 5 hours: 100 people. That’s an average of 20 people per hour.

Actual processing time (not counting the waiting):

  1. a quick eye-test (in my case, it took about a minute and a half),
  2. a recording of fingerprints (also about a minute and a half, at most – thumbs only, not the whole hand), and
  3. payment of the renewal fee (possibly 2 minutes)

That’s a total of 5 minutes. Somehow waiting 5 hours (most of them standing), for something that takes only 5 minutes – give or take – to accomplish, seems a little obscene.

Here’s why it takes so long: although they do have a grand total of two eye-testing machines on board, for the greater part of the hour and a half I spent inside, sitting down and watching (I can honestly say that I have never been happier to see a chair), only one of them was being used at a time.

I can only assume the other staff members were on lunch at that point, and until they came back the lone officer on duty there was having to multitask: conducting eye tests and taking fingerprints. When the other officers finally came back, they started operating at full swing (haha, ahem) – two officers concentrating on the eye tests, one more doing all the fingerprinting – and the grievously halted line started moving a little faster (whoops of barely contained excitement issued forth).

Obviously, everyone needs lunch, but surely they could have had replacement officers to take over for the duration (taking fingerprints isn’t really complicated, and the eye test is fairly simple)?

Hillstar Traffic Dept, OtteryDespite the inconvenience, though, I’m not really ranting. It was a long long wait, to be sure, but I met some interesting people in the line, and I was very impressed by the cheerfulness of my fellow queue-formers, despite rumbling stomachs and a wish to be anywhere but there.

The Force is strong with me, it seems – must be all that organic food I’ve been consuming of late.

Seriously, though – people were friendly and polite, held spaces when someone had to go out for a smoke, or go to the toilet, and quietly joked about all the things we South Africans have in common: troubles with Eskom, issues with Telkom, concerns about government and so on. That line was an equaliser of sorts: a cross-section of our society, and everyone got along just fine.

When I finally got to the last hurdle – payment – I almost kissed the startled lady at the counter (bit difficult, through a thick pane of glass), and then emerged, dazed and confused, into the light of what was left of the rest of the day.

I couldn’t possibly put in words just how happy I am not going to have to do this again until 2013.

So, if your driver’s licence is coming up for renewal, be prepared for a very long wait. Perhaps other traffic departments are a little speedier (a.k.a. the triumph of hope over experience) but if you’re going to Hillstar (Ottery) I’d suggest you bring the following:

  1. portable chairs (I’m serious – I would have given my left kidney for one of those, especially after the first hour on my feet),
  2. snacks and refreshments (nothing like hunger and thirst to get your teeth grinding and the blood boiling) and, most important of all –
  3. a sense of humour (this is the litmus test: if you can handle this, you can handle just about anything).

May the Force be with you, too.

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