Today I had the privilege to meet with the South African High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, Her Excellency Ms Nomatemba Tambo, daughter of anti-apartheid legend OR Tambo.

The meeting took place at 11:00 (BST) at South Africa House in central London where I laid a formal complaint against the staff of the SA High Commission. Before I continue, let me give you some context.

Andre meets the SA High Commissioner in London, Her Excellency Ms N Tambo.

 

What is a High Commissioner and a High Commission?

As a Commonwealth nation, we do not have an Ambassador to the UK but a High Commissioner instead (both titles are equal in ranking). For South Africa, the High Commissioner role is the highest diplomatic position you can hold and is mainly responsible for the diplomatic mission of South Africa’s government to the UK. Also, instead of working at an Embassy, the High Commissioner conducts his/her business at a High Commission, which is usually based in the foreign country’s capital city.

More about the SA High Commissioner 

Nomatemba Tambo was officially appointed as SA High Commissioner to the UK last year, replacing Obed Mlaba. In March 2018, Ms Tambo had to present her credentials at a ceremony at Buckingham Palace and received formal approval to her role from our local head of state – Her Majesty the Queen.

 

So why my complaint?

Last week, Elaine and I visited the SA High Commission to renew our passports. We arrived at their door an hour before they opened and was lucky to find ourselves 4th in line. Even though we only had three people in front of us, we managed to spend over 2 hours at the SA High Commission and left with our blood boiling. During our visit, we were personally insulted, shouted at by staff and had forms thrown back to us over the counter for no reason. The staff were incredibly aggressive and I never expected this kind of treatment from my home country’s government. After witnessing a similar incident, where an elderly man asked for assistance and the consultant refusing to assist him, I decided to write to the High Commissioner to complain about the service and staff behaviour which I considered to be completely unacceptable.

I must admit, when I sent my letter to the Commissioner’s office I did not expect a reply but a few hours later my phone rang and it was the High Commissioner herself – not her secretary or any other staff member. Not only was she calling me herself to find out more details about the incident, she also requested my availability for a face-to-face sit down at her office.

Today’s meeting with the High Commissioner

When I arrived at South Africa House today, I was checked in by staff and then led upstairs to the Commissioner’s office. It was an incredible experience to be inside the building that not only hosts the SA High Commission and SA Consulate but to walk the halls of the building where Prime Minister Jan Smuts lived during World War II whilst conducting South Africa’s war plans.

I was led into a massive wood-panelled office with a large desk, a fancy leather sofa set and of course, the South African flag and the Union Jack hanging behind it. Honestly speaking, it felt like I was walking into the President’s office. Upon entry, the High Commissioner got up from her seat, shook my hand and asked me to tell her the story of what happened.

In short, my complaint was twofold:

Firstly, to highlight the terrible (I may have used the word ‘pathetic’) state in which the SA High Commission operates. This includes the actual process flow from start to finish, the lack of communication regarding applications and submissions, the outdated forms that do not cater for British residents, the fact that forms are labelled incorrectly, the lack of technology where fingerprints are still being taken via an inkpad and hardcopy form as well as the fact that the High Commission only accept cash payments in a country where banking is free. And to top it all off, the fact that we need to wait for 6 – 8 months (in some cases longer) to get a new passport issued.

Secondly, and this was the main reason for my complaint, the horrific treatment we received from the staff.

Our meeting was about 45 minutes long where she actually listened to me, wrote 2 pages of notes and asked me questions. To back up my case, I presented her with a paper, containing screenshots from social media sites where fellow South Africans also complained about how rude the staff were during their visit. I even went further and analysed the data for her. From the samples I presented, the summary shows that 75% of people complained about the service they received, 66% of those complaints also talked about how rude and aggressive the staff were (some using phrases like “being shouted at” and “I left the Commission in tears”) whilst a further 60% also complained about how the process broke down, resulting in a loss of paperwork or a delay in passports being returned. Of the 117 reviews, the High Commission scored an average of just 2 out of 5, meaning 60% of South Africans would not recommend the SA High Commission.

She then gave me an overview of her position and what she’s doing to resolve these issues. She was surprised to hear that the forms are all outdated and incorrectly labelled and asked her assistant to look into the matter immediately. The process of applying for a passport from London is unfortunately still owned by Home Affairs in South Africa but she said she’s willing to take it up with them to push for an updated process.

On the issue of staff rudeness, she mentioned that she’s more than willing to go down to the office to confront the consultant who helped us but she’s afraid that this would result in a classic “he said, she said” situation. To get around this, she’s already pushing for CCTV with audio to be installed in the office so that both staff members and the general public can be held accountable for their behaviour.

In the meantime she advised me to do 2 things:

  1. To complain about these issues directly to her and her team. She gave me her business card and told me that the more complaints she receives, the better the business case she can build with Home Affairs. So she asked me to encourage colleagues and friends to also complain if they receive the same level of service.
  2. To actually record interactions (audio or video) when visiting the High Commission. This could help to identify the staff member in future and to give them solid proof of what actually happened (at least until the CCTV and audio is available)

Before I left her office, she said that she would like to formally apologise to both Elaine and I for the way we’ve been treated and that she’s really sorry we had to go through this experience. She also said that she will investigate my case further and update me again next week via phone or email.

My conclusion

I have the greatest respect for High Commissioner Tambo. Even though I gave her an earful, she still cared enough to ring me up, hear me out and apologise to me in person.

Realistically speaking, today’s complaint will have little to no effect on the High Commission in the short and medium term, but with Commissioner Tambo in charge, who (at least) seems to be a senior government official that actually cares, let’s hope she can sort it out in the longer term.

 

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