Joburg Expat: I'm Only The Spouse

July 11, 2012

I'm Only The Spouse

When you move to South Africa, you will become one of two things:

a) The work permit holder
b) The spouse

If you choose option a), you will:
  • work around the clock
  • be stuck in traffic for two hours every day
  • theoretically have the right to sign a cell phone contract, buy a car, or change your internet data bundle

If you choose option b), you will:
  • lead the glamorous life of the expat spouse
  • be in charge of signing the cell phone contract, buying a car, and changing the internet data bundle
  • have no permission to do any of these things

South Africa, you see, is "so 1950s" as one of my readers recently remarked. Nowhere else that I've ever lived have I been made to feel my housewife label so unforgivingly as here in South Africa. "Certainly mam, we can upgrade your SMS bundle, if just the account holder could call us first to give his okay." 

 "Spouse" status is solidly documented in my South African visa

The account holder, inevitably, is Noisette. In some cases this is due to the fact that he was the only one here when these things needed signing up for, like our Telkom phone and ADSL line. A mistake I can only warn future expats from committing. Wherever possible, the spouse is the one who needs to be the account holder. Because the spouse is the one dealing with all these accounts on a daily basis. Sadly, it's not always possible. Some documents can only be obtained by the work permit holder, like the infamous Traffic Register Number, the small but essential prerequisite of buying a car in South Africa.  Some people have told me the spouse can get one too (in fact might be required to) but on the day that I showed up for it, it wasn't me they wanted, I can assure you that. It was Noisette, and he had to go there twice, grumbling for months how he really didn't have time for this kind of crap.

If you want to sign a cell phone contract, you need the work permit holder's signature. Mind you, at least in that case he/she doesn't have to show up in person. Just pulling out the dog-eared passport copy I had  learned early on to tote around with me was sufficient evidence of my connection to an income-producing legal alien to the folks at the Vodacom shop. After they had sent me home three times for various other documents. 

I've heard some people haven't been able to buy foreign currency without a work permit, but that has never been a problem for me. My problem, rather, was that I didn't have the foresight to bring my passport as well as my airline tickets with me to the bank as proof that I was indeed traveling abroad. My question is, who even still HAS airline tickets these days? But that's what the bank wanted to see and make copies of and stamp about seventeen times before putting it into a binder that I can only imagine is transported into some underground vault by little goblins riding rollercoaster carts past fire-breathing dragons.

My suspicion is that some of this bureaucracy is just a leftover from South Africa's apartheid days. That whole system thrived on an enormous bureaucracy. Just imagine, trying to classify people into fifteen different skin colors and administering potential changes of skin color when somebody  had a valid objection to their status. That all must have required tons of paperwork and a certain fondness for it. When I applied for our traffic register number (when indeed I still thought I could in fact apply, which turned out to be false) I was asked what nationality I was, and upon proclaiming German (to match with my German passport at the time) I was given a specific form with a field where lo and behold, I  needed to check East or West Germany. I briefly contemplated educating the clerk about the finer points of German history, namely that West and East Germany had ceased to exist more than twenty years ago, but thought better of it.  When you are navigating through South Africa's government bureaucracy, you avoid arguing with clerks.

I guess in a roundabout way I can manufacture this into yet another Expat Tip: You might be just The Spouse, but whenever possible make sure you're The Account-Holder-Spouse.

Or get busy practicing your spouse's voice. 

11 comments :

Conrad said...

ja genau, das ist sicher immer noch das unselige Erbe der Apartheid. Und das macht es dem Land so schwer, im internationalen Wettbewerb mit den anderen Schwellenländern z.B. in Asien mitzuhalten und Wachstum zu generieren.

Übrigens: Dein Logo-Bild mit der blau eingefärbten Skyline von Joburg finde ich jetzt viel schöner und passender als das frühere rostrote!

Andrew said...

Wow, and I thought the odd rules and such were bad in Germany. It seems that life in just about every country is more annoying for foreigners than natives. The stories I have heard from people trying to live in my native US have been various levels of annoyance and horror. Germany has it's rules that are often incomprehensible, but once understood and followed things work 90% of the time.

Maria said...

And don't forget Murphy's Law (Murphy, of course, being an expat spouse): things will go spectacularly wrong ONLY when the account holder is traveling or otherwise unavailable. Every. Single. Time.

2Summers said...

I can certainly relate. Try being "just the spouse" when there is actually no other spouse! Sigh.

Conrad said...

@Andrew: auch wenn ich mich mit dem Vergleich auf gefährliches Terrain begebe, aber das Südafrika von Anfang der 80er Jahre hat einen Westdeutschen in einigen Punkten an die DDR erinnert. Aber es stimmt: die Bürokratie im eigenen Land kommt einem aus Gewohnheit nie so schlimm vor wie die in einem fremden Land!

Rachel said...

No consolation, I know, but things are little different here in the US. I was told that I didn't need a Social Security Number because I had no income (obviously illicit siphoning of funds from the joint account don't count), only to discover that one can get absolutely nothing without one - and as it is the most widely used for of financial ID, that means no individual bank account, no credit card..hmm.
One long line at the Social Security office, a minimum wage job and a little reimbursement for spousal relocation services later and voila! I now number one of the 99%... I am somewhat amused that it would have been easier to buy a fake ID than to verify my own real identity. And I could have picked a far more flattering picture.

Sine said...

@Conrad: Danke! Habe auch lange nach guten Fotos gesucht und bin wie gesagt fuer dieses ueber hohe Mauern geklettert:-)
@Maria: yes yes, very true! We cite Murphy's law so regularly here that my 10-year old just went onto Google to research the origins of it.
@2Summers: now I feel bad for once again "complaining" when surely there are others with worse problems. I can only imagine the conversations you must have when trying to get anything bureaucratic done...
@Rachel: Oh yes, I remember the struggles of obtaining a social security card as non-American. There is some sort of TaxID you can get instead, but that is also a hassle. Becoming an American citizen seemed easier than getting a social security card... Congrats on your newfound identity, bad hair or not:-)

Judy said...

I've also experienced this overseas and always put it down to the byzantine bureaucracy and lack of development in the countries I was living in, so I was quite horrified to find it in my own country (Canada) when I returned. Of course you only encounter this stuff when arriving in a country, not when you live there all the time. For example, I discovered I couldn't talk to many of the utility companies because the accounts for our house (which we'd owned for 20 years) were in my husband's name. The fact that I had the same last name and lived at the same address meant nothing. And when I worked in relocation helping American expats moving to Canada transfer their driving licences, we often found the authorities here would not accept emailed driving abstracts because they were not "original" documents. Despite the fact that the DMVs in many states will only deliver driving abstracts by email. It seems we are "trailing spouses" no matter where we live *sigh*

Anonymous said...

HI Sine, haha looks like I am not the only expat having problems as mentioned by you! Just signed up for a post paid line with Vodacom and they wanted copies of passport, work permit, 3 months bank statement and lease agreement. My word, I was hesitant to give the bank statement but luckily I have very little parked in SA so it was ok. I had a big quarrel with the manager as I wanted to convert the pre-paid data and voice lines to post paid. The voice line was fine but I was perplexed by the stupidity of their plans. Can you imagine there were no savings converting from prepaid to post paid for data, in fact post paid was even more costly since prepaid has 2 months grace period to use up data. Vodacom came up with this ridiculous offer where if I buy their router the 3G package is on offer for ZAR199. I impressed upon the manager that I do not need a router as the Iphone has an in built hotspot but to no avail...as what I was telling my other expat friends who came from Asia's most efficient country, this is Africa so do not expect things to work out the way we like it to. Rgds Peter Tan

Sine said...

Hi Peter - yes that sounds very much like something Vodacom would do. I remember being totally confused by all those plans early on when selecting one, and finally just more or less picking randomly. I also never understood why you don't get a better price with a real contract vs prepaid. None of the pricing frankly makes much sense to me, and in the meantime I've been able to get lower rates for my kids because when I renewed our contract I just got a more knowledgeable person to do the paperwork. I could have saved money all along, but here in SA it always depends on who you happen to get advice from...

Sine said...

@Judy - not sure why I didn't respond to you earlier, sorry. That is in an odd way comforting, that Canada would give you some of the same headaches that I typically associate with African bureaucracies. You always think of the US (and I suppose Canada) as being terribly efficient and streamlined and sensible. it's funny, all the troubles with such stuff here don't bother me much, but I wonder if it will last for the rest of my life and I'll just be a more relaxed person, or will I revert to my old self and be annoyed when things don't work in the US, just because I expect them to?