MASERU — It’s just after 7am and the doors to the Passport Office in the Pitso Ground area in Maseru are yet to be opened.
But outside the commotion has already started — people have already started pushing and shoving.
It’s a chaotic scene.
Others are arguing over positions in the long queue.
Decorum has no place here.
The old, the pregnant and the sick have to tussle it out with the rest of the people.
It’s no use complaining because no one listens.
The long queues at the Passport Office are no place for the frail and sickly.
Daring young men and women usually elbow out old men and women from of the queue.
Today the queue is much longer.
There are about 200 people in the queue.
Only less than half of them are likely to be served.
The rest will have to come back tomorrow to wait for another day in the scotching summer heat.
The director of passport services, Sello Mokoena, the man in charge of arguably the most lethargic department in the country, says they are working hard to process as many passports as they can but they are always overwhelmed with new applications.
He says they are currently processing applications submitted in 2008 but the waiting list keeps getting longer.
More applications are streaming in from the district passport offices.
Mokoena does not know how many people are still waiting for their passports but says “the figure could run into thousands”.
Insiders say the figure is actually somewhere around 40 000.
In the queue outside the Passport Office are people who have waited for over three years to get a passport.
Some have braved this long queue every day for the past two weeks only to be told “to come tomorrow”.
But one can only get this response from the passport officers if they are lucky enough to make it into the building itself.
Most people have waited in this queue for two weeks but they have never made it into the office.
It’s either you bribe the guard at the door to jump the queue or you have to wake up before the cock’s first crow to make it into the building.
Yet even these tactics might not be enough to get you served by the officers here.
“They are painfully slow and rude,” people say.
And they are vindictive too to those who dare complain about the shoddy service.
‘Malitaba Petsane from Butha-Buthe learnt this lesson the hard way when she confronted an official who had roughed-up an old man who was in the queue.
After that, she says, the angry officer told her that she will never get help.
“I confronted one of them for shouting at an elderly man who had come to apply for a passport. She was so rude to the old man,” Petsane recalls.
“Something in me pushed me and I confronted her for being rude.
“Another officer intervened. She called me to her office.
“She insulted me in and out, asking me who I was to confront them in front of everybody.
“She said I had disrespected them. She said I would not get any help because they had identified me.”
Since then she has been coming to the office but no one is willing to help her.
“I keep on coming hoping they will forget the incident,” she says.
“I get miserable every time I come here.”
Going back to the Butha-Buthe office is not an option because the situation is worse than here, she says.
Anger and hunger are wearing down 70-year-old Moleko Sebeko.
His clothes are now socked in sweat from standing for hours in the sun.
Sebeko says his passport expired years ago.
Now he says he desperately needs a new one to travel to South Africa to process his pension from the mines where he worked for nearly two decades before he was laid off due to occupational injuries.
For weeks this frail-looking man has been coming to the passport office just to put in his application.
He is yet to make it to the first counter.
Today he is badly placed in the queue and the offices are sure to close before he even gets to the main gate.
Still he hangs on in the queue “just in case some people ahead get tired and go home”.
“I have been coming here every working day for the past two weeks,” he says as he wipes off sweat from his face with his calloused palm.
“I have not gotten any closer to the passport office door.
“Sometimes I feel like just leaving this place and going home.”
Many have walked away in frustration but Sebeko just cannot afford to surrender now.
The stakes are high in his case.
He desperately needs to get his pension and compensation for the injuries he suffered while working in the mines.
To get there he needs a passport or at least an emergency travel document.
The passport is thus the only hurdle between him and his pension.
“It’s only that I don’t have money but otherwise I would have bribed someone to get the passport,” he says.
Many have turned to the corrupt officials in the Passport Office to quicken the process.
This reporter got a passport in two days after bribing some officials in the office through a runner.
She used a false name.
Mokoena says he is aware that some of his officers are extremely corrupt.
“We are overwhelmed by these corrupt officials,” he admits when told how this reporter managed to bribe her way to get a passport during an undercover investigation.
“There is corruption in the passport offices. Some of our officers have been suspended while others are still being investigated.
“Some are still facing disciplinary hearings.”
Lira Lira, 72, applied for his passport in June 2006 and it is not yet out.
Officials, Lira says, have been “telling me to come tomorrow, week in week out but I still don’t have my passport”.
He has lost patience.
“I am going to get in there and will not come out until I get my passport,” Lira says.
“I am tired of the officers’ arrogance. They are treating us like rubbish.
“I do not think they have even bothered to check for my passport.
“They want us to bribe them for the services and I am not going to stand this anymore.”
Home Affairs, Public Safety and Parliamentary Affairs Minister Lesao Lehohla last year tabled the Lesotho Passports and Travel Document (Amendment) Bill 2009.
The Bill would amend the Lesotho Passports and Travel Document Act 1998.
He said the Bill would help curb fraud and corruption in passport issuance.
The amendment Bill, which is now under parliamentary scrutiny, proposes to increase fines for offences and penalties for a person who “aids and abets another person to falsely acquire a passport or travel document” from M5 000 to M20 000.
Yet the problem is not that the fines are too low or that the law does not deal with these issues.
The problem is a corrupt system that has been allowed to entrench itself.
In the absence of strong political will to deal with corruption, the system has thrived.