By Takura Zhangazha*
Acquiring a new valid passport in Zimbabwe is currently the hardest task a citizen can attempt with the Ministry of Home Affairs, Registrar’s office.
This in arguably direct violation of Section 66 of the Zimbabwean constitution which guarantees citizens the right of freedom of movement. Including the right to a passport or other travel document (Section 66c). A point that I am certain our members of parliament with their new diplomatic passports are not wont to recall.
For over a year plus, there has been an acute passport printing backlog based on a number of reported reasons. Chief among these is the generally high demand for passports (I will get back to this matter later).
The other major factor is the cost of printing passports. Because the printing of the same was outsourced to a private player, when the government decided to reintroduce a local currency, the profit seeker proprietor of the passport printing machines and paper hedged their bets and asked for outstanding debts to be paid.
What happened post those demands made to government, the evident end effect was that it created a backlog of passport applications that surpassed printing capacity.
So to say that getting a new Zimbabwe passport is a herculean task is an understatement. It is an exercise in a process of dehumanization that is reminiscent to the racist colonial days of pass books and marriage certificates in order to live in urban Salisbury, Bulawayo and other cities/towns of Rhodesia.
It sort of does not work like this, at least in Harare. You go to the very crowded, disorganized single window ‘enquiries’ offices that is situated in a small courtyard. In the same courtyard are a number of entry points into a labyrinth of offices which passport form holding applicants enter after shuffling along on benches that are designed for discomfort.
I am not sure what really happens inside the quadrangle’s offices because I have not gotten the permission to apply for the passport that I urgently require for professional travel. What I have witnessed on at least three occasions is a profound and saddening desperation of many of my fellow citizens to get this document.
From the conversations I overheard while queuing up in haphazard fashion (watching out for the pickpockets), there were and are still those that want to go back to work in the Diaspora. Urgently so. Then there are others that want to get passports for their children in order for them to be able to go back and re-unite them with their parents who are also based in the Diaspora. There were at least three elderly women who were almost in tears asking for urgent help because of their health and the need to travel for treatment abroad.
The passport office staff could do no more than shrug their shoulders and say, we cannot help you because there’s a backlog. You will have to wait. Or alternatively exasperatingly shout that if you had left your letter for application of an urgent passport, their senior officers would call each applicant. A development that from the look on everyone’s faces, is not likely to happen.
Some leave shaking their heads in anguish. Some stay in the hope that if they explain the peculiarity of their individual cases, they may get the go ahead for the next step in the application process. Suffice to say that really didn’t work with explanations of how there is ‘a backlog to the backlog’ of emergency passport requests.
The muted curse is barely audible and followed by words such as ‘what sort of country is this?’ It is as desultory a statement if ever there was one. And also a statement that is oft heard in everyday social circles, signifying a general desire for departure, if one could do so. Except that where such departure would be pragmatically and legally enabled i.e via the passport office, same said departure is well-nigh impossible. Both in the immediate or the long term.
On the other hand, the symbolism of the Zimbabwean passport as a key emblem of a departure, or even rapture is telling. While I live and work in Zimbabwe and retain the relative individual consciousness of never wanting to depart, a lot of those I met at the passport offices are looking for this departure/rapture permanently.
The same said desire/want for departure is further dehumanizing in that even where we as Zimbabweans would like to go to live, we are generally not welcome. Even in SADC. It therefore becomes a double dilemma. Not feeling needed or enabled at home. Not being wanted abroad. And still no passport renewal or acquisition possible.
One can only shrug shoulders at the sheer emotional weight of it all. All with the ministry of home affairs’ lethargic response being tellingly inadequate. But who really wants to look at the holistic picture when in desperation of this travel document? The entirety of the approach has been to treat the issue as one that relies fundamentally on government benevolence as opposed to a reflection of the economic reality that is millions of us living and working in the Diaspora. Or the millions who work as cross border traders and thousands of others whose jobs though being based in Zimbabwe require the ability to travel in order to fulfill their employment obligations.
It is no longer a matter of embarrassment for the state to fail to fulfill its constitutional obligation to enable Zimbabweans to achieve the right to freedom of movement and residence. It is an issue that goes to the governments abject failure of providing as basic a constitutionally obliged document such as a passport. To every eligible citizen.
I know I have to go back to the passport office. Again. Even if I am not seeking permanent or long term departure. And again I anticipate I will have to shrug my shoulders, shake my head and be de-humanised by the state I will forever belong to.
*Takura Zhangazha writes here in his personal capacity (takura-zhangazha.blogspot.com