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A South African scene on Christmas Eve

IT’S 8.18am on Christmas Eve and I’m in a queue in the local Post Office to renew my car licence. There are 18 people in front of me and at roughly 10 minutes per person, this is going to be a three-hour affair. Let me repeat: standing in a queue, on Christmas Eve.

I’m immediately aware of how counter-intuitive this is. Who stands in physical, actual queues anymore? The last queue I was in was an online one, and it was mere minutes before I was conducting business. This is completely non-21st century vibes going on here.

I practice steady breathing. It’s a typically South African summer day in my home town. By noon, temperatures will reach 39 degrees Celsius. I check my app: it’s currently 30 degrees (but the real feel is 783). The perspiration is real, too. Middle-aged ladies dressed in cotton slacks and flip flops fan their clammy foreheads with their folded paper as they roll their jaded eyes around the claustrophobic post office. Young men dressed in tweed jackets, denim jeans and Nike sneakers lean in and hold up the wall alongside the queue.

It’s hard to make the inner adjustment that this will be my life for the rest of the morning, standing in this queue. For 3 hours. Again, who does this??

I subdue my inner angst, frustration and synaptic glitches, and continue breathing, trying to be mindful of where I am, what I’m doing and why. Still, it’s hard. I could be a million other places over this time period, on Christmas Eve.

Three hours. Nations rise and fall in this length of time nowadays. I could travel across the continent and back in this time period. And… my wife will have dealt with at least 197 real emotional needs for our children (that they’ve vocalized) on her own while I’m away. (Which reminds me, I must take home some gin & tonic.)

An hour goes by. I look around. Random strangers are starting up conversations. They’re smiling. The atmosphere has relaxed as we all accept our fate.

There’s a white woman speaking to a mixed-race single mom. One is the designated driver for new year (hence she’s standing in the queue), while the other needs to travel across provinces to get medication. A factory driver has a long shift ahead of him this evening. Alongside him is a wise, elderly black man, who jokes by suggesting that the Post Office system might go offline any minute now. Only South Africans know how to laugh at such a fatality. And the laughter is infectious.

Face-to-face contact time. The lost art of being social without any screen to facilitate it. Just a bunch of South African humans in a room together in 2018. And it’s beautiful to see. We choose our preferences online, our friends, our news feeds.. But this queue, at this time, in this post office, is completely luck-of-the-draw. Or is it? I am struck with the notion that we have more in common with each other than we think, and right here and now we are given the opportunity to explore these things. No one plans to meet each other here, and yet here we are. Forced out of our own busy inner worlds and into an interactive outer one with each other, and everyone chats for hours.

Only in this great nation is such disparate, eclectic, cosmopolitan greatness so tactile, so obvious, and so under-celebrated in media headlines. Someone said recently on South Africa is the most “self-cynical” nation in the world. And yes, if you go with media headlines, there’s a strong argument for that.

But standing in this post office and watching our people just be together, I beg to differ.

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