By Nqobile Tshili
Touts operating outside the Bulawayo Passport Offices are allegedly cashing in on desperate travel document seekers as they claim to be working with registry officials to facilitate processing of passports.
If the stories being told by the touts are true, then there could be massive corruption playing out at the passport offices.
The Registrar General’s (RG) Office which was closed in March, is now partially opened and is processing travelling documents mainly for diaspora-based Zimbabweans who want to regularise their stay in neighbouring countries.
Due to Covid-19 prevention measures, the passport office limits the number of clients being served a day to about 30 to maintain social distancing.
It is said to have created loopholes as some touts are allegedly joining queues in the dead of the night so that they sell their spots to travel document seekers at dawn for up to R200.
To get an appreciation of what is happening, a Chronicle news crew yesterday pretended to be among the desperate document seekers who wanted to submit passport applications for diaspora-based relatives.
At about 9.30AM, the RG’s office-employed security guard told travelling document seekers that they had taken in the maximum number of people to be served on the day. There was, however, a hive of activity just outside the registry gate despite the guard’s announcement.
Touts operating just by the gate bragged that they had connections within the registry offices and could assist individuals to access required documents for a fee.
They mentioned the names of employees at the RG’s office who could assist in the processing of the documents for a “fee”.
One of the touts only identified as Zulu said it did not matter if registry officials had reached their daily limit as the figure could be increased once applicants paid money.
“At the moment they are only serving those who are submitting documents for Zimbabweans based in the diaspora.
If you want us to facilitate that your papers get processed even now, we can organise with our people inside so that they help you. But that will cost you US$100 for the ZW$600 passport.
It will just take a week and the passport will be out. If you are serious, I will connect you with my contact inside then you also buy me just a US$2 quart of beer because you can wait for days without getting any assistance,” said Zulu.
However, Chronicle is aware that even after following due process, a passport for a diaspora-based citizen can be processed within the same timeline.
Earlier this month, there were no long queues at the RG’s offices as one of the journalists managed to submit an application without challenges.
In the interactions with the touts, one could even be forgiven to assume that some of them were directly employed by the RG’s Office.
They seem to be well informed with what is happening at the offices.
Although Chronicle could not confirm one of the tout’s assertions, he seemed to know when the last batch of passports was released.
The country had a backlog of about 400 000 passports before the lockdown which came into effect at the end of March.
“At the moment they are issuing passports that were applied for in February last year. Although, the registry is not issuing passports for locally-based people, we can organise it for you for US$210,” said the tout.
“These days it’s difficult to get inside here as they are taking a limited number of people. You can even engage us to queue for you and pay R200 or else join the queue around 3AM. Those that want us to queue for them have to be here by 7AM so that there is no challenge.”
A travel document seeker, Mrs Tendai Chimombe said authorities should investigate the ongoings at the passport office.
“I came here yesterday and found these touts telling the same story that they can facilitate that I access travel documents. When you talk to them you might think there is a mini- registry office by the gate as they seem to know everything.
“To make matters worse, RG’s Office officials are not that friendly and they seem to enjoy dismissing people. While I cannot substantiate whether these touts can really assist one to acquire documents, there is no smoke without fire.
“We cannot institutionalise corruption by paying bribes to get services. There is definitely a need to investigate alleged corruption at the passport office,” said Mrs Chimombe.
Bulawayo provincial registrar Mrs Jane Peters said the touts have become a nuisance to the registry and dismissed assertions that they were working with officials.
“The touts are not mine to comment about. They are outside our gates and we have no control over their activities.
We have even reported them to the police. Those who want to give them money can do so at their own peril. They might be knowing some of the officials so they can even claim to be working with them even if it is not true,” said Mrs Peters.
Home Affairs and Cultural Heritage Minister Kazembe Kazembe had not responded to questions by the time of going to print.
However, last month Minister Kazembe told media in Bulawayo that the registry office had managed to reduce the passport backlog.
“This Covid-19 pandemic caught us off guard, even Treasury was affected but when we started operations, our officials took advantage of this to work on clearing the passport backlog. We have since managed to print more than 200 000 copies which is 50 percent of what was lagging behind,” said Minister Kazembe.
“Further, people should be made aware that printing passports is not just a process which is done overnight, I hear some people saying that we must get the material locally but that is not possible because passport printing is something that is controlled internationally hence we have to import most of the printing material but our officials are working round the clock to further reduce the backlog.” The Chronicle