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The Marlborough Licensing Department encourages customers to make use of informal traders outside of its gates. Georgina Guedes wonders why this arrangement isn’t more…well…formal?

Yesterday, I went to the Marlborough Licensing Department to renew my driver’s licence (which expired in March, but let’s not get into that). I arrived early and joined the queue of – woohoo! – only about ten people to stand shuffling in the nippy but not icy Highveld winter air.

After around ten minutes of waiting, the doors opened and an official came out. He belted out the list of documents, photographs and money I needed to have with me – and as it turned out, I was missing a couple of items. I reluctantly surrendered my place in the queue and asked the official where I could go to get some photos (someone had told me that the Licensing Department now takes photos for you) and a copy of my ID (their copy machine was broken).

“There in the veld,” was the answer.

So I drove back out of the parking area, accepting that, of course, the day wasn’t going to run as smoothly as I had hoped. “The veld” turned out to be two triangular patches of land at the intersection of two nearby roads. At one corner, a man had set up a little gazebo and a white backdrop. He enthusiastically ushered me over.

He took a decent photo and printed it within about five minutes. I asked him how much his machine had cost him and how long it took for him to pay off the investment. “It cost me R2 000 and it paid for itself in one day,” he said, pocketing my R50.

Then I asked if he did photocopying, and he pointed at another gazebo on the adjoining patch of veld. So I walked over to find a young woman with a copier, who charged R5 per copy of my ID (I took a couple – they are always useful).

I noticed a tangled extension cord winding through the dry grass and asked where it led. “To my auntie’s house,” she told me.

She didn’t seem to be doing as roaring a trade as the photographer, and I think her business model was less lucrative, but she was still full of cheer as she chatted to me and worked her machine.

I came away from my experience with the photographer and the copier feeling heartened by their entrepreneurial spirit. With very few overheads, they had both launched small businesses that address a public need and keep their families fed.

As I made my way back to the Licensing Department, I thought about the relationship between government and the informal traders that provide services to their citizens. The civil servants at the department send their “customers” out to use the informal traders’ services, and yet the traders still aren’t allowed (presumably) inside the department’s premises.

While the referrals are of great benefit to the traders, it seems that government could do more to empower or develop them. How about a booth in the parking lot? Or the use of a power cable that doesn’t have to stretch through the veld? How about training them to use and service bigger and better equipment?

When I finally made it to the front of the queue, it turned out that the Licensing Department does indeed have its own cameras and takes bloody awful pictures with them to print on your licence card. For some reason, the (much nicer) printed photo was also stuck to my application form then sent into the recesses of the back office for processing.

My efficiency brain did flick-flacks as I tried to work through the logic of that – and I wondered if maybe the government was, in fact, doing its bit to keep the informal traders in business. Perhaps despite the fact that they have these fancy cameras and can do it themselves, they still require you to produce two passport sized photos to keep the guys outside their department walls in business.

I accept that I was probably overthinking things, and the double photo was simply an example of inefficiency that no one has solved yet. As I left the area, I gave the photographer and copier a wave and sent them thoughts of gratitude as I drove past. I hope that their little businesses continue to survive, despite the inexorable trudge of progress – or at the very least that no one in government works out that two separate photos aren’t essential for a driver’s licence application form for a good few years.