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If only I knew then what I know now …

Some time ago, I spent five hours queueing at the Department of Labour to find out that my former employer “hadn’t updated” my records. No unemployment benefits for you, I was told, because “the system” shows you as employed.

Since I had lost my job six months before that a number of people had asked if I had claimed unemployment benefits. I had been paying into the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) for decades, but I thought of UIF payments as just another tax. But, since I needed the cash and am always open for a new experience, I thought I would give it a try.

Some people seemed to think I could do it all online. Great, I thought, even if it seemed very unlikely that I would escape the queues I often see snaking around the block outside the Department of Labour office. When my attempt to register online failed, I tried again (as one does). I tried a few times on different days before admitting defeat and joining the queue at the Department of Labour early one morning.

That is how I ended up in front of a young government employee, let’s call him Syd, receiving a stern lecture about having tried more than once to register for UIF online.

Syd, who couldn’t have been even half my age, explained very slowly that one gets blocked if one tries to do the same thing multiple times on “any website on the internet”. He might as well have added “dummy”. I wasn’t surprised by his attitude. I hadn’t expected to be welcomed there, looking very much the part of the middle-aged, middle-class white lady that I am.

After telling me that I was still registered as employed (which I think is rubbish, but who knows), Syd said the team that processes applications to update the system were “still on holiday”. This being late February I am not sure what holiday they were still on.

He said he would need to fill out a form and send it to his supervisor who would, in turn, fill out a form and send it to supervisor and eventually it would be done. However, he suggested, he could call in a favour from a lady he knows “in Athlone”. Maybe that is a euphemism for “gangster”, “likes the odd gift of a bottle of whiskey”, or “is happy to bend the rules”. Maybe I was supposed to grease his palm so that he could grease hers.

I didn’t have a clue and was afraid to ask. Also, I had already depleted my Little Old Lady Gangster reserves when I paid R100 to jump the queue early that morning.

I didn’t pursue the offer that involved the lady in Athlone. Syd sucked his teeth the way older mechanics sometimes do when they have to break the news to a woman that it is going to cost a lot of money to fix her car, but they can’t explain why because it is so complicated that it would just bend her pretty little lady head.

By not mentioning the lady in Athlone I had effectively agreed to stay on the B Track. Syd told me that if everything “went well”, my profile would be updated within a week or two. I should keep checking online for the update. Once I reflected as unemployed, I could apply to be registered for unemployment benefits … wait another 20 days … apply for it to be approved … wait 20 days … apply for a payout … and etc.

“But,” he said, “there is a massive backlog, people have been waiting since November … ”

In the end. I did get some money and was very grateful for it.

I wished I had applied earlier (before my money ran out), but I hadn’t thought I would stay unemployed. Or maybe I should have let Syd talk to the lady in Athlone on my behalf. But then I had already jumped the queue …

When I arrived at the Department of Labour office a little before 7.30am, the queue was running around the block. I sighed quietly, and walked to the back of the queue feeling relieved that I didn’t have a niggly baby in my arms like so many others did.

I had hardly taken my place when an older black guy came up to me and offered me a place at “the front of the queue” for R100. I had nothing to lose being at the back of the queue, so I followed the guy to check it out. When we arrived at his spot, maybe 15 people from the front, I asked a few people behind him if they were cool with me buying his place. Absolutely, they said, this guy is making a living.

So, the deal was done and it was all very friendly in the queue … until someone else, a black man, probably in his twenties, tried to join the queue a few people ahead of me and very nearly started a riot. There was a lot of pushing and shoving and shouting.

I was quite frightened when he looked directly at me and accused the others of being racist. “When others do it, nobody complains … this is racist,” he said, looking at Middle-Aged White Lady.

He was shut down quite quickly and soon stormed to the back. The queue shuffled forward without incident for five hours and, finally, I found myself in front of Syd.

“What if I hadn’t been offered that R100 Queue Jump ticket” is one of so many What Ifs I have pondered since being retrenched a year ago. The biggest of these has been. “What If I knew then what I know now …”

This is the stuff of an ebook, I thought, so I wrote one. Surviving Retrenchment, your 10-step guide: know your rights, regain your equilibrium and thrive. Here it is, free for you to download and share.

If you enjoy it and would like to make a donation to cover my time and assist with distribution I would be delighted to receive R10, R100, R1000. Donate here

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