SURPRISINGLY, there was a well-timed reminder by snail mail: my driver’s licence was due for renewal on 29 April. Surprising because officialdom has publicly said it’s not responsible for reminding us about anything and then because the postal system is broken. But it was also heartening as every so often there is a reminder that someone somewhere is doing their job.

Pietermaritzburg’s Road Traffic Inspectorate at Mkondeni is a place that fills people with some dread, second only to the Home Affairs office in town. So, having heard that licences could be renewed at the municipality I decided to give them a go. The RTI people are at the end of the banking hall and theirs must rank as the least organised small space in South Africa. Taped to the walls are tatty notices clearly years out of date. Puzzled about how to acquire an application form, a security guard pointed me to an unlikely window, entirely covered by a dark screen. But behind it was a vaguely human shape so I bent down and addressed it through a slit at the bottom of the window. The request was clear, the reply inaudible but I was now the proud possessor of a green form. Round one, but not without misgivings: there was a palpable lack of activity and a sign reading ‘System down’. Whether it related to today, last month or the previous century was debatable.

My return could not have taken place in worse circumstances: a strike of municipal staff on a Monday morning towards month end. Having fought a way through a scrum in the banking hall it was obvious there was no possibility of RTI action, either through solidarity or sabotage. Back through the throng and outside I was approached by a Witness reporter who was unimpressed by my tale of the blacked out enquiries window and even more by my cheery assurance that I always receive my municipal account in good time. Predictably I failed to feature in next day’s front-page report.

Round three a week later was no better. The strike was over and there appeared to be languid action in the RTI office. But the few hopeful applicants were now informed that they required a copy of their ID document, scattering them onto the city streets in search of a copy shop; in spite of the fact that a photocopy machine was plainly visible in the RTI office. Perhaps it was broken or out of paper. Reassembled, the fully documented applicants were directed to a few rows of anonymous seats in the banking hall. Nothing now stirred in the RTI section: teatime, perhaps? But as the minutes ticked by I decided to consider another option. ‘System down’ seemed to be a permanent condition.

The dreaded Mkondeni was a pleasant surprise. This was entirely due to a sergeant-major type RTI officer who managed the queue with great firmness and humour and kept things moving until it came to the photography session where his remit seemed to expire. Nonetheless, within 30 minutes I had paid my R225 and was in possession of a receipt that kept my licence valid in effect until the end of July. Come back in six weeks, I was told. Six weeks? – but what’s that when you had begun to despair.

In due course I returned during May to puzzled frowns and muttered discussion in the collections department. No, my licence was not ready as the necessary data had never been sent to Pretoria. I was given a torn off piece of scrap paper with a scrawl across an official stamp and told to report to security. When located, they enabled me to short circuit the main queue and await another turn with the photographers and data capturers. Yet another 30 minutes in those interesting queues in liberated South Africa where people of all ages, genders and ethnicities grumble about incompetence and delays. Somehow this imparts a modicum of optimism. The elderly African deliveryman ahead of me was also on his second round. Come back in four weeks we were told.

And so it was that on my sixth trip I finally took delivery of my licence three months into what should have been a simple process.

Can one draw lessons about the national condition from personal experience like this? First, cautious conclusions about the general can be drawn from the specific. Second, there is the universal lesson that a great deal of what goes on around us depends on motivated, intelligent individuals like the RTI sergeant-major. Take them out of the equation – and they are not all that numerous – then inertia and even chaos reign. Apart from that memorable individual, during my six encounters with the RTI I met no one else who showed a spark of interest or initiative. The only seemingly energised, intelligent people I met were in the queue.

On 20 June President Cyril Ramaphosa delivered his second State of the Nation Address (SONA) of the year to kick off what is pompously termed the Sixth Administration. Like predecessors it was a cut-and-paste job repeating the same old hackneyed phrases about corruption, youth unemployment and job creation. But this edition also had bullet trains, robotics and super highways. Unbelievably, the government is punting a new high-tech, smart city. For whom exactly: the desperately poor, uneducated inhabitants of informal settlements? Turn on the radio and every other commentator is banging on about the fourth industrial revolution. Yet foreign investors are understandably wary about bringing any funds into South Africa given the level of wild political rhetoric about expropriation (and not just land). Every league table puts us at the bottom of the ladder of educational achievement, especially maths, science, and literacy. And the sole supplier of electricity, Eskom, is on the brink of collapse. Our city, Pietermaritzburg, cannot repair thousands of potholes, pavements and street lights; maintain a landfill site successfully; keep a taxi rank clean and healthy; or police gridlocked traffic. These are administrative basics. The municipality is notorious for uninterested and motiveless staff, although it doesn’t have to be this way as the employees of many privately run businesses demonstrate every day.

The State is in the grip of political sclerosis induced by the toxic culture of the ANC. It has been argued that Ramaphosa’s SONA was encouraging, statesmanlike and uplifting because it is preferable to have a dreamer rather than a fixer or crook as president. That’s true enough. But does he know about ‘System down’ and the fact that it does not apply only to computers?

And the very best of luck to all those renewing their driver’s licences.