The tagline on the Department of Home Affairs website is "we care", but the hundreds of people taking the department to court aren't feeling the love.

The complainants, applicants for residence permits, include students accepted for courses at South African universities; professionals unable to take up jobs they have been offered; foreign academics headhunted by universities as visiting lecturers; and husbands or wives wanting to join their spouses.

Many of these – including an octogenarian prevented from coming into South Africa on an extended visit to her children and grandchildren – have been victims of a virtual meltdown in the department's permitting operations. It has left thousands in bureaucratic limbo for upwards of a year.

More than two months ago, Minister of Home Affairs Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma went on record to describe the situation in the permits section as "totally unacceptable" and causing "untold hardships on applicants".

The exact number of unresolved permits is unrecorded, but immigration specialists believe it could be more than 40 000.

Last week, two separate court cases were brought against the department.

Cape Town immigration practitioners Gary Eisenberg and Frederik van Zyl, and three of their foreign clients who have been waiting months for their work or spousal permits to be granted, brought the first court case.

It will be heard in the Western Cape High Court next month.

In the second case, Cape Town immigration practitioner Leon Isaacson and several other practitioners (including Julia Willand from IMCOSA), along with more than 700 of their clients, have filed papers in the Johannesburg High Court to compel Home Affairs to adjudicate the applications.

Applications cited in Isaacson's lawsuit include study permits, spousal permits, work permits and temporary residence permits.

The department undertakes to process such applications within 30 days – and after Dlamini Zuma's outburst, promised to finalise them in 48 hours.

But the reality is somewhat different. Weekend Argus is aware of several applications still unprocessed since 2009.

What has gone wrong?

It all started when Home Affairs, in an attempt to do away with corruption in the issuing of permits, centralised all permit adjudication to a single hub in Pretoria in May.

Permit applications that until then had been dealt with by district and regional offices, would now be accepted at these local offices, captured and then sent to Pretoria.

A track-and-trace system was put in to place to enable applicants to track their applications.

But the hub was hopelessly understaffed.

Applications started to pile up. And with no discernable system in place to control the handling of applications in the Pretoria hub, files got lost, permit applications were misfiled...

Training of staff is an issue and the track-and-trace system is a failure. In some cases the district offices are failing to do their bit. They hang on to files, often for months, before capturing the data or sending the applications to Pretoria.

"The track-and-trace system doesn't work. The system hangs for half and hour to an hour, so officials are taking all this time to do something that should take a few seconds," Isaacson said.

Further problems have been identified in the transporting of files from the district offices to Pretoria.

The department, in a press release acknowledging a backlog of 13 000 applications in November, said offices were waiting for the "existence of bulk applications to justify costs for sending applications by courier" – in other words, waiting for the applications to pile up in order to save money on transportation.

The press release blames the backlog on the move to the centralised hub, despite the department's annual report indicating that the hub would "improve efficiency".

But Home Affairs head of permitting, Jacob Mamabolo, said the crisis would be resolved by the end of next month.

Mamabolo said, in response to Weekend Argus queries, that 20 000 applications were cleared last month, and 18 000 still had be adjudicated to clear the backlog – much more than the 13 000 mentioned in November.

According to Mamabolo, the logjam was created in the regional offices, and was not due to the centralisation in Pretoria, as suggested in the November press release.

He said the track-and-trace system "works very well" and the department was not aware of any lost files.

One practitioner, who did not want to be named for fear that his clients would be prejudiced, said: "In a laudable effort at transparency, they launched an SMS service that tells you when an application you have submitted has been captured in Joburg, and another one when the application is received by Pretoria.

"But I sent through paperwork in November for an application, and I received an SMS on Monday (February 7)) telling me it had been captured in Joburg."

The application had not yet been sent to Pretoria.

In an affidavit filed in the Eisenberg case, filing clerk Matthew Dreyer describes the chaotic system employed to deal with successful permit applications that have been sent from Pretoria back to Cape Town.

Dreyer said all successful applications – those that have been green-lighted but not communicated to the applicants – were put in a single file. "The file is a complete mess. It is nothing more than a very old, battered ring-binder file, stuffed to overflowing with approvals. I would estimate there are about 1 000 pages in the file. It is not indexed.

"I myself have regularly picked up approval papers that were just lying on the floor, being trodden on, and replaced them in the file."

Eisenberg's candidate attorney, Stefanie de Saude, says in her affidavit that in her dealings with senior officials in the department she was sent from pillar to post.

She describes phoning the chief director on December 13, who answered his phone only when she hid her caller ID, only to be told he was driving and would return her call. He never did.

On January 6, de Saude called his offices, again. "Someone answered the phone but hung up before I could speak. I tried... again but there was no answer."

In a media briefing on Friday, Dlamini-Zuma said they were hoping to make it easier for foreigners to enter the country by extending the length of validity of certain permits, such as work permits, and study permits.

She added that the work permit backlog would be cleared by mid-year, after which there would be no more bottle-necking.

February 20 2011 By Bianca Capazorio - IOL