The first thing that greets you is the riot of complaints from the frustrated throng. An elderly woman tottering on arthritic legs is ranting about how she has spent the past few days standing in the long queue.
Welcome to the Francistown Civil and National Registration (O’Mang) office where chaos is the norm and scenes such as these barely raise an eyebrow among residents.
It’s a small patch of tiles, but each day it probably sees more footprints, wary travelers and long faced civil servants than any government office in the country.
Today the long and winding queue is as congested as ever, and busting with a riot of questions:
How long to get to the counter? Why the hell didn’t we leave home earlier? And then – clap of doom! Mmanchadi Motshumi (67) from Chadibe who has spent the past three days in the queue finally gets her turn at the service counter, only to be sent back to seek assistance from her headman.┬á
“What hurts the most is that one can never get a clear explanation as to exactly what correction should be made or whose mistake it is, and government officers at our kgotlas sometimes refuse to take responsibility such that we are forced to shuttle between our villages and Francistown with very little hope of eventually getting assistance,” she said. She added that the situation is worse for those traveling from outside Francistown as they have to wake up at ridiculous hours if they fancy any chances of beating the long queues and getting assistance before closing hours.
Motsumi, however, still considers herself among the lucky few. Residents talk of more tragic cases from the queue.┬áThere is talk of an elderly woman who watched her entire family being wiped out by HIV\AIDS while medical officers refused to give them the life saving antiretroviral pills because they did not have the O’Mang national registration cards.
The elderly woman told friends how she tried to get O’Mang cards for her bedridden children but was discouraged by the long queues, tedious registration process and the “unreasonable demands that were made by government officials”.
Even responsible officers confess that they find themselves overwhelmed by the communication breakdown between government departments. It is, however, members of the public who pay the price in the currency of time through hours of waiting in long queues and by being denied government assistance.
The Francistown City Council social welfare officers this week admitted that they were aware of instances where deserving citizens are denied government aid because they do not have O’Mang cards, adding that they usually ask the district commissioner to intervene to solve such problems.
A spokesperson from the Department of Civil and National Registration, Innocent Hobona, said they are currently working to harmonize government programmes, and that it is unfair that the public has to bear the brunt of communication breakdowns between government departments.
However, if there was any one incident that brought the issue into sharp focus, it was last week’s decision by Francistown Central Police Station officers to round up school children who do not have O’Mang cards and take them to the police charge office where they were charged P50 each.
Media reports revealed how the Central Police Station in Francistown was swamped by school uniforms when students from different schools thronged the police station to pay the P50 fine for failing to produce their O’Mang cards.
┬áRecently, the Botswana Police Service and the Department of Civil and National Registration issued a statement that a P50 fine will be levied against all over 16s who do not have O’Mang cards.
Hobona told The Sunday Standard that the problem of long queues is not peculiar to the Francistown District Office. “It is a challenge that all offices throughout the country are facing, “he said.
┬áHe explained that the Francistown District Office does not only cater for people from within the city but also services over 10 villages surrounding the city among them Borolong, Natale, Matshelagabedi, Mathangwane, Jamataka, Makobo and Patayamatebele.
He lamented the fact that people from rural areas have a tendency to shun the services of established smaller bureaus at their home villages preferring to go to the Francistown office which ends up overwhelming the district office.
┬áWhile small centers have been established in some villages to cater for customers from the rural areas it has emerged that officers from these centers are most of the time left idling as customers prefer to get service from the Francistown district office which is consequently overwhelmed with long queues. Sunday Standard investigations revealed that villagers shun these small centers because they consider them a waste of time.
It emerged during our investigations that applications submitted to the small centers are routinely forwarded to the district office where the already overwhelmed officers relegate them to the “pending” tray where they eventually get misplaced.
┬á“Applications submitted at the home villages are forwarded to the district office and they take ages to come back, or eventually get lost, such that it is much more convenient to submit applications directly to the district office,” said one villager.
┬áHobona also revealed that the other problem that they face is that Batswana have a tendency to repeatedly lose their identity cards, especially at month end, and his office is inundated with replacement applications which tend to overwhelm their office and incapacitate them to cater for new applications.
┬áHowever, Hobona admitted that the problem is also compounded by the fact that the district office has limited capacity to cater for the ever increasing demands from the public. He added that they are working around the clock to provide the best service with the limited resources at their disposal.
┬áHobona also told The Sunday Standard that they regularly undertake field trips to villages within their catchment area to register customers and also distribute application forms.
“This is not only meant to reduce congestion at the district office but is also a way of availing services to those in the rural areas especially since they are sometimes forced to travel long distances to visit the district office,” he said, adding that the field trips are done quarterly, especially during school holidays and they go a long way in registering customers from outside Francistown.
┬áHobona revealed that, as a means of alleviating congestion at the Francistown office, his department recently opened an office in Tonota and plans are underway to open another office in Francistown as soon as office accommodation has been identified. The staffing of this office is already in place.
A number of headmen from areas around Francistown also expressed concern at the seemingly negligent attitude displayed towards villagers by some civil registration officers. They added that the system should be addressed urgently because, apart from the fact that they travel long distances to Francistown, villagers are, most of the time, not conversant with the English language and government jargon.
Meanwhile, the Independent Electoral Commission has in the past also revealed that they are working hand in hand with the civil and registration department to facilitate expedited O’Mang registration ahead of the voting registration process so that more people will be eligible to vote. In the past, a lot of people were barred from registering for elections because they did not have O’Mang cards.