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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.