I found myself racing through “what if” scenarios and obsessively wondering what happens next. Admittedly I have the “crazy” gene pretty bad and, despite being a therapy regular, catastrophizing is a common challenge for someone with anxiety disorder (which is very different from worry, stress or ad hoc situational anxiety, all of which often gets lumped together due to a chronic misunderstanding of mental health in our South African context). The outcome of this mental health sidebar was “wondering what happens next” translated to me being pretty concerned I would be arrested. If you get an official letter about a fine, and you miss the deadline, then that seems pretty bad. I had a bunch of half truths and forgotten conversations about “when a warrant is issued”; “how court summons works”; “does one get a summons to go to court?” and something about “doesn’t a policeman or woman need to be wearing a hat or else the fine is invalid” floating around my head. More the stuff of braai-side conversation then evidence-based truth. So I resorted to my natural port of call: Google to find out what I could. I found a FAQ on Durban.gov which helps one understand that Metro Police in Durban are not SAPS, and found some contact details that I could have used (were I not an introvert that abhors talking on the phone) and are pretty good (although one needs to understand city planning’s metro zones and their boundaries to know which the appropriate office is to call, and there is always the fear of being lost in the call centre shuffle or the mists of emailing a city department). I also read some blogposts on mybroadband horror stories about criminal records resulting from traffic fines, which only served to drive my anxiety. I also found some payment sites that allow you to pay your fine online. “Brilliant”, I thought, that will sort out my problem. It didn’t. Despite saying this was a place one could pay Durban Metro Police fines, after entering in my reference number nothing came back. Perhaps they had already started the warrant process.
So I decided to be brave. I would go down to 16 Archie Gumede Place, Police Headquarters, and try to plead my case and pay my fine knowing full well it was likely I would be arrested on the spot. My fine was paid and I was walking out within three minutes. The reason it took that long was because I thought I would clear up some information about the fine process of Metro Police from source. This is how it works (according to the very friendly and accommodating Metro Police official, battling to hide back a chuckle at my panic):
With Durban Answers we are building a platform to direct people to information, and resources and tools to help them act once informed, to open access to being an active citizen involved in the city. As explained by OpenUp, ‘Citizens become active and take action to improve their lives when they are informed and empowered to effect change’. This is democracy in action and we believe has the chance to result in real and sustainable positive social change. My fairly detail-light instructions above about paying fines can start to be enhanced and corrected by Metro Police and other users, and updated when need be. We can add in the link to the various fine payment gateways that currently exist.
The final parting words of the most helpful official at Metro Police building was “You are safe until you sign something”. I must add the disclaimer that the above information was based on notes I made on my phone during one conversation, and so I am sure it needs to be verified and refined a little. In fact, this would be a useful feature to add to the platform would be a green tick for where an answer has been verified by the relevant authority. An important point is that we don’t intend to create a duplicate of information, nor do we want to create a duplicate of the services offered by the city nor a new payment gateway to rival those that exist. What we care about is the space between government and citizens, and the organisations, businesses, media, and CSOs that are trying to address that gap, to work towards a future community that cares about each other and creating an environment to live work and play together.
Would I expect most people to go through this level of stress based on this experience as I did? I certainly hope not. I am sure many people are well aware of the process, the levels of warnings and letters, and other relevant information like being able to pay your fine online. This (purposefully pithy) experience does frame something that is more serious, around people being able to access information, guides and toolkits about how to be a citizen in our city. How does one access information, how can one find a process that others have follow so that we are not always starting in the dark and having to work it out from scratch.
I am aware my context is anomalous and my situation is one of privilege. But it does make me wonder how many people daily feel bewildered or lost or confused or even indifferent about something simple like paying a fine in the city because of lack of access to information or a link to someone who has walked that road before and can provide knowledge of experience. What about those with less money, less internet, less smartphone, less access to friends within the city or who are lawyers? Let’s find out what information it is that stops them from have equal access to opportunity to engage in and be a citizen in the city, and let’s answer that need together. For Durban, by Durban.
Aliasgher shares his experience of joining Open Cities Lab and everything he has learnt over the year.
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