So close and yet so far

Who would have thought that power outages on the East Rand would bring the community so much closer to each other during lockdown? And that, amongst the chaos and confusion, order would erupt? Certainly not me that day I joined the queue to pay my final notice fee.

Traditionally, ‘standing in line’ at the Ekurhuleni municipality consists of bundling together as close as you can to the door. ‘Social distancing’ means elbowing others out of the way, the old and infirm first. This time, I was surprised to see a formation, not entirely unlinear, extending from the entrance to the corner. A man, I am guessing a builder or architect, had become so annoyed at the lack of COVID discipline in the queue that he took charge. Masks were not enough. He went to his car to fetch his builder’s pouch with chalk and started marking out 1.5m intervals on the pavement. The queue became twice as long, forcing us halfway around the block and into that cold shady section in front of the Pakistani’s cell phone shop. The mob bristled. The moment Bob-the-builder walked around the corner, we shuffled closer to the entrance, only to take two steps back when he returned to check on us. We were a COVID concertina, line-dancing in and out, to great amusement of the car guards – and the Pakistani.

Once you pass through the doors – ‘poof’! New rules. Whatever tenuous bonds of fear, duty or chalk marks held the crowd in a semi-orderly configuration outside, now split into three parts: ‘queries,’ ‘payments’ and ‘reconnections.’ Plus, there were new forces of nature to contend with – the tellers. Newton might tell you that every action has an equal and opposite reaction, but he was not from Germiston. If he was, he would have known to shut the hell up as everyone knows that a teller/counter clerk will push back three times harder for every inch you gain. You in a hurry? They’ll slow right down. You are on their clock, in their universe. The time-space continuum will warp for you, as it did for Bob-the-Builder.

Here his Quixotic tilts to keep people 1.5 metres apart quickly hit a brick wall. The line for ‘queries’ was much longer than the other two. He had to double the line back on itself, winding its way through the room like an anaconda.

In the meantime, a splinter group had formed at counters 9 and 10; the ‘reconnections’ group. These were the people who had survived ‘queries’ and somehow could afford ‘payments.’ They considered themselves superior in a Darwinian sense. They made it clear that we should stay very far away from them as our queueing rules did not apply there. Counters 9 and 10 thus formed two straight stripes. We had all become unwitting pieces in a giant snakes and ladders game, the board only visible to God and, maybe, Bob-the-Builder. Fate threw one more dice – it started raining outside. Security allowed a dozen more people to push through the door.

Kaboom! People who were technically last in line for ‘queries’ were now first in line for counter 9, and you can imagine how that pissed them off. The ‘payments’ queue, who previously had their back to the guys in ‘queries’, now faced the people lined up at counter 10 head-on. In an effort to stay socially distant from each other, we were the closest we had ever been. The tension was Newtonian. You dared not breathe, for more than one reason.

If you think that a butterfly flapping its wings in China could cause chaos, it is nothing compared to what that old man coughing up wet phlegm at counter 5 achieved that day. The room heaved and recoiled like a pinball machine on ‘tilt.’

In the resulting chaos, Bob-the-Builder quickly marked a position for himself at the front of the 3 queues, did his business and vanished into a vacuum.

That left the rest of us with a Pascallian wager. Whether we paid our bills or not, chances were we would not have electricity anyway. The infrastructure in our area is falling apart. We have Schrödinger’s electricity: Even when it is on, it is off. The mob shook itself like a bag of potatoes and re-assembled in pockets of adequate order. We settled in, gambling on the side of hope.

Someone offered the old man at Counter 5 their seat. And a handkerchief.

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