The Life Righting Collective runs courses to encourage self-exploration through life writing, raises funds for course fees and brings people together to share their stories and grow community.


Lucy Alexander
Published date:

I am telling this story for the partners, the children and the parents of those whom the bureaucracy fails, on both sides of the counter.

I am trying to replace a disability disc: the blue and white square with a colour photo of my husband at the back − spectacles off, left eye off track − and a blocky wheelchair emblem embellishing the front, reminiscent of the Greek flag. The disc is covered with crackled clear film, and you hang its curved handle from the car mirror when you use it. Sometimes you toss it on the dashboard as you get into the car, but you always remove it from the car at night. These discs, as you’ll find out, are worth much more than you could ever believe. They allow you to park in the one or two places that are closest to your destination, and that’s worth something to everyone, but particularly helpful if your balance has gone for good.

I have been to rehab with my husband in the Bo-kaap, and we’ve stopped in Woodstock for lunch. He takes the precious disc with him, and slides it into the front of his jacket, so he can take it when we meet up with Chris, the carer. We’ve eaten, with strong coffee for me and hot chocolate for him; and Chris has arrived, allowing me to go back to work for the afternoon, allowing them to head home because it’s tiring, all this rehab. But as we trek up the ramp towards the car, the Woodstock wind swirling leaves around our ankles, my husband reaches for the disc, to find it’s gone. I retrace our steps while they wait in the wind: I make enquiries, I leave our phone number, but it’s not found. It’s gone.

A week later, I embark on obtaining its replacement at the municipal offices. My sister thoughtfully collects the application form – she works nearby. I note that it must be signed by a doctor at R90 for the pleasure, who will confirm that my husband is indeed disabled and worthy of a disc. We are new to the area, and he has only needed a local doctor once, but since that doctor has at least met him, I make the half hour journey. I drop off the form with the receptionist, explain what is needed, and head home, informed that the doctor is busy today. A day later, when work allows, I pick up the signed form from the doctor, pay for her signature and head for the municipal offices. The queue winds along the counter, curves back, and some of us wait outside the door, watching the slow shift of citizens who edge forward, one problem at a time. It has slowed down even more before I reach the counter, as one person is off duty for lunch; we wait. When I finally hand it over, the woman behind the glass scrutinises it slowly, glances up and says, “You’ve spelt his name wrong, and the ID number’s wrong too”.  Astute she is – but I have not spelt his name wrongly, it is the R90 doctor who must have been too busy to focus while she filled in the form. I am provided with another form, and I return home to phone the doctor, and to arrange to bring the second form to sign. This time I fill in the details, leaving space for her to tick the requisite boxes, and to sign and stamp the form. The next day I drive back, en route to work, and ask for the form to be ready for my dash past the next day. I wait three days, because I cannot get there at the right time. I plan to go to the municipal offices again on the day when I work from home. And if you interrupt your “work from home” day, it doesn’t mean you do less work, you just work after hours − right? − until the job is done. But the luxury of working from home at least allows you to do something domestic in your home area without taking leave. So I am grateful enough.

After the queue has shuffled forward, and I have reached the counter, the counterhand says quietly, “No – you cannot fill in the form yourself – the doctor must do so.”

I am angry – I say strongly (for me), “Last time the doctor made mistakes, you’ll remember! I filled it out so that all she had to do was sign.”

But she is, “… afraid that it cannot be accepted … we have auditors and they check these things,” she says.

I turn away, a new form in my hand, adrenalin rising, face flushing, glaring at the innocent queue of citizens who wait their turn for the cold hand of bureaucracy to adjudicate how well they have filled their forms. Before driving home, I drive back to the doctor’s rooms, and I do not hand over the third form, but I ask for my R90 back. There must be some small justice in this story. I shoot the messenger, relating the story haltingly and angrily enough for the doctor’s receptionist to feel responsible, while she grudgingly hands back R90. I am convinced I can pull this thing off by Friday if I take my husband down the road to the doctor at the foot of the hill where we live, and pay him R90, risk his form-filling skills, and head back the next day to the municipal offices on my way to work. Thus far I have spent over four hours shepherding this application, and there are more to come. And If there is one thing I need and want, it is time. Time not working. Just being. Being with him. Being me. Just being. The aftermath of a stroke takes it out of you. You need time, just to be.

So I phone Dr X and the receptionist listens kindly, and we go down to the rooms by car later, and, holding on to each other, we make our way up the ramp, form in hand, for the disability inspection. The receptionist will call Dr X, my husband will perform disability, and later, given time and R90, the doctor will fill in the form solo. It’s a kindness, because we are not his patients, but he will do it, because I have enumerated the troubles we have had so far, and he has heard.

Two days later I phone, and the receptionist suggests one more day. On Monday, she phones and I drop by to pick it up on my way to the municipal offices. There I take up position in the queue of citizens, noting that there is a second line coming down the passage from the drivers’ license counter today. It is busy, close to midday, and because of the youthful age of the prospective drivers, it is buzzing. I reach my destination − the window glinting coldly at me, the diligent bureaucrat contained as she reaches for the form. She reads it through and says … “You cannot answer the question ‘yes’ and …‘no’. No triumph in her voice, just resignation. “You cannot answer the question ‘yes’ and … ’no’”.

But you can! The questions asks: ‘Can the person alight independently from the car?’ and he can, so the answer is, ‘yes’. But the next part asks, ‘Can the person walk independently to the destination’, to which the answer is, ‘no’.

“Are you saying you won’t accept the form?” I ask.

She replies, “The form must be filled in correctly.”

I say, “It is correct – he cannot reach his destination alone.”

She repeats, “You cannot answer the question ‘yes’… ‘no’.”

And I say … in a low voice, “Please, call your manager. This is the third time I have been here with this form. I am a working person, I will NOT go through this again. Your form is the problem. Please call your manager”.

Her face is scowling, her voice is muttering, as much perhaps as mine. She goes into the next room, and a younger woman comes out into the foyer, alongside the line of future drivers, to meet me. I say to her, softly, as adrenalin ricochets through my 61 year-old body, “You had better take me into a private room to solve this right away, otherwise I am going to take off all my clothes – here – now − in the Civic Centre. I will not have this form filled again. I will not!”

The mousy-looking woman with a ponytail surveys the queue of youngsters, looks at the tear-faced woman who is shaking with rage, and who is ready to follow through on her threat at the slightest hint of resistance … who has had enough, enough, enough of this farcical operation to please the auditors.

“Come with me,” she says, and leads me outside, where the light blinds me, and I see no one and nothing as we cross the parking lot to the Traffic Department, where the big decision-maker is housed. She walks in ahead, and no doubt mentions my threat. The man in the uniform puts up his hands in a gesture of “whoa”, and smilingly offers me a chair, and I rant through my story of three forms, “and now your staff say you cannot answer the question as I have done, and I will not leave without the disc, and I will go to the newspapers, to Cape Talk, and (gasp) … and (sob) … and (gasp) …”

He repeats the reason, having scrutinised the form – that you cannot fill out a question with ‘yes’ and ‘no’.

I say, “Yes you can – see he can get out the car alone, he can hold on to the vehicle, but he has no balance, so he cannot walk to the destination alone … it’s your question that is at fault.”

He replies, in same patient, placating manner, “No, but we have had psychologists to select our questions. There is no problem with the question.”

Now I am searching out the cardiologist’s phone number on my phone, and I have it, and I am dialing, as I lean towards him, holding out the phone to him, saying, “Speak to him, just speak to him – let him tell you what he did, that my husband cannot walk or speak or swallow – talk to him – talk to him now!”

The man in the uniform is backing away; he sees the situation, and he says, quietly and firmly, “Come.”

So we cross the parking lot again. We push past the waiting learner’s license queue, and I am instructed to wait. He speaks to the counter clerk in an antechamber. I pay, I hand over the photos, the form is processed, and the disc is printed.

The electricity goes off before the lamination is complete. Laminated or not, I have the disc, and I make my way out into the glare, depleted from the draining adrenalin.

The disc now lodges in the top right hand drawer of the cabinet in my bedroom, never used. My husband died a week later, so we had no need for lamination.

The Life Righting Collective runs courses to encourage self-exploration through life writing, raises funds for course fees and brings people together to share their stories and grow community.
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