The Hardest to Reach of Them All
Our research team arrived in Cape Town on Sunday afternoon eager for a week packed with meetings with some of the leading experts in birth registration in the country. We had spent over a year pouring over academic literature, policies and packing as many meetings into five business days as time would permit; naturally we were excited to gain some insight into remarkable success of the post-Apartheid South African birth registration system from local authorities involved in various levels of the service implementation. However, there remained one gaping hole in our otherwise packed schedule: a honorary spot for the ever elusive Department of Home Affairs (DHA). For reference, this particular department functions under the national government and is responsible for all documentation of South African citizens. We came to the conclusion early on in the year that sitting down with someone from the DHA would provide invaluable insight into changes made to birth registration policies and, subsequently, had reached out to them early on in the research process with the hopes that the department would share our delight in their incredibly progressive success in this field. Rather, with each increasingly tepid email exchange, we were spun into a bureaucratic merry-go-round of deferrals to various members of the department until we reluctantly did not hit reply to an email suggesting that we getting touch with the recipient of some of our first emails.
After some fascinating first interviews, a mongoose sighting and some ostrich burgers, our team was in high spirits and started to eyeball the open slot that we had in our schedule for the next morning. One of our team members made a joke that we should just drive to a DHA in the vicinity in order to meet with one (read any) official that had been in the vicinity of a birth registration certificate. Perhaps we were feeling ambitious, or perhaps we just didn't value our sleep, but we immediately set up a plan to drive out to a less trafficked DHA first thing in the morning. It was decided: we were storming the Department of Home Affairs.
We arrived cold and vaguely awake at the just opened doors of the DHA the following morning. The rows and rows of empty chairs and chatting officials left us feeling excited that this was finally our chance to interview members of this department that was so critical to our research. We sat on the edge of our freezing cold, silver seats, appropriately labelled ‘Births, Marriages and Deaths’, while a television screen urged an empty hall to bring their tickets to the service provider at the front of the room. To add to the excitement, a few women walked into reception carrying babies and we all exchanged gleeful grins when we realized that birth registration was about to become a tangible process occurring in our very vicinity rather than something we speculated over from a Torontonian lab desk.
At this time, Helen, our wonderful South African research assistant was trying to secure us a meeting with the manager of the home affairs who was standing surveying a near empty room while other staff chatted and prepared for their day. To our dismay she turned around and shook her head. The DHA was operating on a skeleton staff and would not be able to meet with us today owing to them being too busy (note the aforementioned empty hall). However, according to the manager, there were DHA officials registering births at a local clinic down the road and we were urged to go and meet with them. Our team immediately dispersed to the clinic and was met with a very confused nurse who had no knowledge of this registration effort that was reported to be occurring in her ward. There was little left to do but chuckle when we realized that we had quite literally been shaken by the Department of Home Affairs once again. This quickly turned into exasperation the following day when almost all of our meetings asked us if we had thought to speak to someone from, you guessed it, the Department of Home Affairs.
So, in closing, to the Department of Home Affairs: we are here, we are occupying your empty chairs and we want to learn from you. Please allow us to reach you in the way that you reached so many millions so quickly.