Danny Glenwright
Danny Glenwright

Foreigners beware, SA doesn’t want you

South Africa doesn’t exactly roll out the welcome mat.

The Rainbow Nation, for all its colours, does not have a pot of gold for those not born here. I have learned this the hard way.

My husband and I decided to move to South Africa one year ago after I was hired for a position with a regional organisation based in Johannesburg. He found a job when he joined me here. I work in human rights and media development and he works to improve the image and efficiency of South African companies (a very tall order). We’re both here because we love Africa and want to contribute to its growth and development.

Pssshhh, this is meaningless in the dank and dirty rooms where this country’s inefficient, impossible government bureaucracy rules the day.

It all started with a work permit, something necessary in order to be legally employed. I filed for mine as soon as I arrived. One cannot legally work without this document. However, I soon learned that in order to obtain it I’d have to sit tight for eight months due to a backlog at home affairs.

Eight months.

I don’t know many people who have the luxury of taking eight months off work to wait for a work permit. I also don’t know many employers who can wait eight months for an employee to begin work after they’ve been hired.

Earlier this year a Cape Town law firm took out a class action proceeding against the department of home affairs. Apparently hundreds of foreigners were also in my shoes, hundreds more — after waiting many months — had been told home affairs had lost their applications. My application was also lost, only to eventually be found again, and then lost again, and finally found, many months later.

It is a disgrace and a farce. And what is worse is the indifference and the “I want you dead” look on the faces of government staff that are paid to help people like me. The people working in these run-down government offices treat the public with contempt. I have rarely dealt with a government official who is not rude, dismissive and mean, that is, until you offer them a bribe.

The Cape Town lawyers have noted that these delays cost South Africa direct foreign investment and expertise, including visits by world-class academics, never mind the problems for businesses and families. This, as the country’s leaders brag about South Africa’s status as a Bric nation — joining Brazil, Russia, India and China as one of the world’s fastest growing economies.

At the personal level, I was handicapped by this delay because the system is set up so that until one has a work permit they are unable to open a bank account, register a vehicle or do any number of important things.

Once I finally had a work permit I set about trying to register my car. I had encountered several problems with Johannesburg police who regularly stop me asking for something called a traffic register. I have been told by several police that my international driver’s licence is not sufficient; one needs a traffic register to be able to register a car or drive in South Africa.

“But what about tourists?” Asked my husband from behind the wheel of his rental car. He got his work permit before me and applied for a traffic register but had to wait 18 working days for the application to be processed.

“Everyone needs one,” is the typical police response.

I wondered how tourists are expected to know this, especially as most vacations are less than 18 working days.

But then again, corrupt Johannesburg police almost always find something wrong with my car or documents. My steering wheel is a few inches too small, my international licence has not been certified by the local police or there are too many dead insects on my window.

My get-out-of-jail card is to let them know I’m a journalist. I even had one police officer beg me not to write about the fact that he was asking for a bribe. But my poor husband missed a job interview because he was hauled to the police station when he refused to pay a bribe and the officer didn’t believe his passport was legitimate. Welcome to South Africa.

Back to my traffic register.

I recently took three days off work and decided to use one of them to apply for this document. I visited every licensing department in Johannesburg and at each one was fixed with the “I want you dead” look and told they don’t issue them any longer. Some officials had never heard of a traffic register. Another directed me to a handwritten sign, taped to a dirty wall that stated:

“We do NOT issue traffic registers animore,”

However, my vehicle licence disc was due to expire and I could not pay the fee until I had a traffic register.

Although my car is registered under Ekurhuleni district, because I live in Johannesburg district I was told I had to apply there. At the Ekurhuleni office where I am supposed to pay for my licence they issue traffic registers but not to me, I live in Johannesburg. After queuing for two hours all I got was that now familiar “I want you dead” look.

I spent three days trying to find a solution, driving around the city for hours, from one licensing office to another, hoping someone might offer friendly advice or knowledge. I’ve phoned every Johannesburg traffic and licensing office but have never once known someone to answer the phone, ever.

I have often wondered why South African citizens continue to tolerate this treatment from the government and other service providers. On the surface this country appears to function as any other developed nation but it is really just window dressing.

When a human does deign to speak to me they usually need a certified copy of everything I own, from my passport to my work permit to my fraternal great-grandmother’s birth certificate in triplicate.

Most ridiculous was when my husband was told that in order for his traffic register (which was stamped with a Johannesburg police stamp) to be recognised by the very traffic office that had issued it, he had to first take it to a specific police station to be certified. But everyone knows that for a few coins or notes the police will certify a dirty napkin.

After wasting three days of leave I am no closer to my goal. I have seen the scary innards of every licence or traffic office in Johannesburg, waited in endless queues, certified numerous documents, dealt with many ineffectual city officials, wasted litres of petrol and even shed a few tears of frustration on my husband’s empathetic shoulder. We have often reminisced about the days we lived in Sierra Leone, Pakistan and Taiwan, where it seemed much easier to get things done.

I have now lived in South Africa for more than nine months and my car has yet to be registered in my name. I am still without a traffic register and a bank account. My licence is about to expire and I see many bribes in my future. And worst of all, I have yet to find anyone who is well-informed, let alone anyone who can offer a solution.

  • Eben

    My wife and I are in the same situation, I have not read all the responses that others have left for you, My wife German and myself a SA citizen. We have been fighting the red tape and all the ineffective people around, I have been thrown out of a few Government buildings as a result of people not wanting to help or just being plain stupid. We have been able to get her a traffic Register number and well she finally got her car on her name Monday the 7th July ’14, the next thing that we are going to have to do is the renewal of her visa, now with the laws changing that is going to be again a fun time to be waisting our life within the home affairs offices.

  • http://shanascott.blogspot.com Shana

    I’m having similar problems. I had no issue getting my traffic registry however. I am an American and my husband is SA. We have two kids here. I reapplied for my TRP last year and was told it was approved and dispatched to the office where I originally applied. However 10 months later that office still claims they have NOT received it and therefore refuse to issue my permit. I’m about to lose my job and the only thing home affairs suggests is that I willing go back to America for the waiting period and then see if SA will issue me a new visa!! That’s not even a guarantee they will allow me back to the country! I have no idea what to do and am so lost!

  • Legit-Nigerian

    I really appreciate the fact that someone thought it wise to write this article. I keep wondering what the fate of African like me more importantly coming from a bad-labeled country (Nigeria) will be like if europeans are complaining of their problems with the govt parastatals. I really think the government of South Africa is really getting things wrong, have they bothered to note that foreigners develop countries faster and better than indigenes. ( An average foreigner in a country will take his jobs diligently cos that is what brought him over from his place of domicile) but the south African govt thought it wise to make life unbearable for the foreigners at the expense of their citizen but what ill they get in return- a below standard service in all sectors. As a Nigerian, I know we are being identified with bad omen (drug sales etc) but i am sure there are as many legit Nigerians in the country who wished for a legit job just the same way South Africans is also reaping from our country (MTN amongst others). Drug sellers are still in the country because there is demand for their product, instead of the govt working on the supply parties(nigerian etc), i believe if they work on the demand parties(SA citizen), the supplier will leave when there re no sales but never…We are all looked as Bad Nigerians…SA wake up and treat issues rightly…

  • Emmanuel Kofi

    It is quite unfortunate that one find himself in South Africa,the reason of being unfortunate is that the response you receive from those that work in the government offices tells you directly that you as a foreigner you do not belong here.and we no we do not belong here but the citizen cannot develop this nation alone if there is need to analyse the output of a foreigner and the south African citizen on the same job you will discover that the foreign national output transcend the citizen triple times yet they still treat non-indigen like an outcast. but remember this if you do not repent of all this inimical treatment when the challenges of this nation SOUTH AFRICA shall come you will have no place to run to and do not expect any nation that you have maltreated their citizen to stretch you hand of mercy.

  • Rainbow SA

    I lived in SA for 8 Years as an asylum seeker that was extended almost every month, if lucky every 3 or 6 months. i got fed up of that situation of having to go queu like goats at refugee office in Pretoria with thousands of new refugees comers and and others who also came to renew their permits I decided to apply for a Work permit which took 18 months to be processed and issued. Now after almost 10 years living in SA I have finally got a work permit but every 6 month I must report to the department of Home Affairs to prove that I am still employed by the same company. If it happens that I find another Job I will have to apply for another work permit for that specific company… But Guess what, the company I work for is a SA company that has Billion Dollars project In my Origin Country the DRC, they employ Congolese mostly as General helpers, that is another story for another day… But in short, SA is ready to lose me though i spent 10 years of my life in their country where I have studied and worked for several years!!! I can’t understand that…

  • http://www.solidridge.com TiiTii

    Life is becoming harder and harder for foreigners living in South Africa. Recently I read an article in an Events magazine and I learnt that SA’s changing the visa system, making it almost impossible for a foreigner to enter or stay in the country. These guys aren’t thinking out the box. As a Zim national, I’ve settled for all the crap that we go through. But I was shocked to see these lame restrictions have passed on to European nationalities too. I mean these are the people who are keeping South Africa at its tops. I’ve come to think that because SA is almost at the top of Africa’s most developed countries, the government has sort of settled for the idea that it can do all by itself without partnering with anyone in the process. Well good luck. It’s a selfish act. And just because people responsible for this have no travelling ambition doesn’t mean other SA citizens don’t because what they don’t realize is how they are making life difficult for South Africans in other countries or those who wish to visit other countries. SA government’s decisions and actions aren’t going unnoticed. Already, foreign nationals living under constant harassment by officials and civilians are holding a grudge. There is so much this country has to offer, but frankly only foreigners spot those things, but there is also a lot more that this country does not have that other countries have. I wonder just how SA will approach other countries when they finally open their eyes. Wake Up…

  • Adamsone

    Well the pain in my heart is so big with the way this so called south Africans also do to foreigners. why must every time SA Police or metro or normal citizen see a foreigner, they see a way of buying their bills and lunch money.. why on earth would a police ask for a traffic registration? because you are not suppose to carry it around.. because is not every one who drives a car owns a car, that TRN is to allow you register a car under your name as a foreigner national as they called us. well I leave all in Gods hands.

  • Manu

    One day SA lived under aparteid system, and we where there to help and support, but today they do discrminate people…

  • GeorgiaInAfrica

    The worst are the banks. I have had an account at FNB for 6 years, and am in the top .005% of South African wage earners – and they have NEVER approved a single credit request from me. For a credit card, a laptop, a car – anything. Even though I put hundreds of thousands of Rand through this account each month. Thankfully I am paid in dollars and now have the bulk of my pay paid in Mauritius – where my bank treats me well.

  • Riek

    This was interesting to read a foreigners perspective. It is not just foreigners who have to deal with this every day, even South African citizens and being told that you must go back to Europe where you belong. I left South Africa after I could not get a properly paid job, I went to over 40 job interviews where they either say I am over qualified for the post or that it is a BEE post. They waste my time going through the entire interview to just tell me that. I lived in the country of Georgia and even if it is a 3rd world country their systems are much better, everybody pays tax even if you are unemployed and there is actually a public hospital which you can use. I am currently in Indonesia and it is the same here. Hopefully China will also be so good to me when I leave in 2 months. All the red tape, poor service, high crime, work for only a certain skin color and inability of the uselessness of the government made me give up and leave. My quality of life is much better overseas, no fears, better money and lower living costs. It is not greener on the other side, but one has to decide with which problems you can live with. All I can say is good luck to all foreigners and those married to South African citizens. You are going to need it, lots of patience and luck.

  • real african

    Ubuntu so they say. What a joke. My wife and i are facing similarcproblems and whats worse is that we have a son in the middle of all this. We have been trying to get a marriage certificate and they have been sending us back and fourth and i mezn going tozambia and ba k every month. On wednesday i heard the most horific words though not at all surprised from a home affairs official who told me after asking her to give me atleast 30 day because we were in the middle of applying for marriage processes her response was that her government has directed her not to let us parasites in the country because we are only here to steal their happiness and comfort. Zimbabweans are by the way discribed as chip monkeys only got to look at. I watched as these two officials including a supervisor by the way went on insulting me the “parasite” and laughed themselves sick. The supervisor went on to say he has never laughed so hard early in the morning. We all know that all these new laws are there to get reed of “parasites” and “monkeys” though the minister denies this. If an official can say that what else can we conclude. Im a Zambia and a real African and will go bavk to zambia with my family once we get married and hope i dont see a South African at some government office seeking help

  • european

    SA does not realize that foreigners are important for a successful economy and society. Yes, Gigaba says he wants to protect the country. Then please, if someone has a criminal record put this application on a different pile, take longer for this application. If someone has education, trainings, experience and no criminal record – make a quick decision. Most people come for work to SA – because they see opportunity. They create jobs and do not take them away. Why would a foreigner with similar background to a SA citizen be able to take that job away? And btw, no one can really afford to wait that long. I have to change my visa, it takes 3 months to get all documents (from various countries), it takes weeks to get an appointment at VFS and then it takes months to get a decision. No employer waits 8 months and I cannot afford to have no income for that period of time – having a family and a wife that commits without able to get a work permit here in SA. SA is not in competition with Europe, the U.S., etc.SA needs skilled people who are willing to work here and see the potential of Africa, despite the crime. Make quick decisions, if there is a backlog work longer hours and use them maybe when there are less applications like in Dec. The bureaucracy here is killing jobs! Ah, btw.. for a crucial skill visa, the bodies who should give a confirmation about my experience (abroad!!) are not even legally able to confirm experience abroad, but only the experience in SA.Quite a dilemma.

  • european

    No one helping at Home Office. First they said it takes 4 weeks, then it was 4-6 weeks, now they say 8 weeks (on average) and the immigration lawyer I work with tells me the truth is it takes 2-4 months for a decision. I am in the country, with my family and live without an income. The truth is that we will have to leave.. despite having a job offer, despite having studied in Europe and the U.S., despite of having 18 years of work experience in my field at the top firms in my industry. You know what, the reason for South Africa’s economic mysery becomes clearere and clearere to me. Bureaucracy, rules that make no sense, processes that make no sense and people who do not think about this country. This country has everything to thrive, but prevents itself from doing so. People with good educations and work experience who want to come and work in SA would create employment, will pay tax, creat erevenues not only through their work. If there are crtical skill visa applications, then make a decision within 2 weeks. Whats so difficult here???

  • Qwerty Asdf

    Wow! This article is so reminiscent. I was “illegal” for 4 years while waiting for my General Work Permit to come out.
    It’s been a nightmare to say the least. I had to re-apply 4 times (one every year) as I was also told numerous times that they had “lost my application.”
    I’m not here because I want to be. I’m here because the Government and Economy in my native Zimbabwe isn’t conducive. I was in the US and moved to South Africa because I got engaged to a South African citizen. WORSE DECISION I’VE EVER MADE.
    A year after I relocated we broke up and now faced with lots of red tape I then applied for a general work permit. I was fortunate and blessed to work for a company that stood by my side and eventually took over the application on my behalf. I had a Immigration Company eventually helped me and even they, at one point, got very frustrated and had to “elevate” the matter. Not even sure if that’s possible in DHA!
    But, all that is behind me now. Praise God!
    All I know is I do not want to spend the rest of my life in South Africa. I’ve lived on 3 continents and all I can say is I felt more at home and was treated better OVERSEAS than I am on my own Birth Continent. It’s pitiful that Africans (all born in Africa, in general) can be so malevolent towards their fellow Africans.

  • watershare

    My partner is from the USA, and have been here 8 years, and we never had to bribe anyone to get anything done. We do our research, plan, and submit our documents in time, and viola, paperwork are issued. Yes it takes time, but show me where these things dont take time?
    The author of the article suffers from what we often see in the queues, and refer to as “suffering from white privileged superiority complex”: If you rock up at the counter with your condescending looks and your air of exasperation, you are going to get the “Die, eedjit” look. If you had done your research properly, you would know the difference between a drivers license and a vehicle license, and that you cannot rock up and expect to work without a work permit, for which you could have applied from your home country.
    If you “love” Africa so dearly, perhaps treat her and her people with a bit more respect and dignity – you will get much further, much quicker.

  • lea

    I am shocked i know people have problems registering their cars and all but do yourself a favor and move to durban its easier to get your license and registering your car is a breeze it took me two hours to register my car here its not the whole of south africa

  • Tau

    every country has its own system,, and for matter of fact SA is the Best in Africa,, …. Go to USA and see if you will find it easy to maneuverer… we have lot of illegal immigrants and you complaining about our system,,, but I wish you all the best hope you got helped ,, we just trying to fight corruption and illegal immigrants ,,

  • Teresa Lane

    I have lived in South Africa for 20 years and I have had a continuous business visa for the past 9 years I have just been refused a business visa extension with no real reasons of any kind in fact the letter I received was totally illiterate and was not even addressed to me!!!! I would gladly appeal but my lawyers have told me there is no point. But I cant believe that home affairs can erase 20 years of my life and take away my home?

  • disqus_Qon12PQyD0

    Well, unfortunately I am going through similar situation. The service is unacceptable what all these administration offices offer. You are waiting in a long queue, and when it would be finally your turn to go and give in your documents, somebody who you don’t even know whether they work there just stands in front of you and says, sorry we can’t take any more people. After waiting the whole day. I just don’t understand why they don’t make an appointment system. South Africa is an amazing country but all this mess what causes so much unnecessary stress makes it almost impossible to live here as a foreigner.

  • eJulius Samuel

    You know .. i wont say anything.. am 100% sure lack of information makes people ignorant to think this author is trying to get everything easy. Would advise you to go to Marabastad Home Affair on Thursday and go to same place on Monday and Friday.. You see the difference this same author is giving you.. Try Johannesburg Home affairs also with same days then conclude your comment cause this author is just trying to speak the truth which most South Africans or ignorant people think it doesnt exist. #ThankYouAuthor