Joburg Expat: I Don't Even Have to be in Joburg for Another Traffic Cop Story

May 27, 2013

I Don't Even Have to be in Joburg for Another Traffic Cop Story

It's not every day that you save somebody's life from 9000 miles away. Okay, perhaps not exactly their life, but definitely their dignity. And maybe even their Rolex watch.

So allow me to bask in my glory for just a teensy bit.

Do you remember my blog post about the absolute must-have document for your car if you want to roam South Africa's roads relatively unmolested? If you don't, or if you are new to this blog, go there immediately. Do not pass GO. Drop everything you are doing and proceed there right now - not just now or now now - until you've printed the document in question and put it in your glove compartment.

Or you might very well land in jail.

South African jail. I actually HAVE seen one, it turns out.

The story was relayed to me by a friend of mine. She was stopped in a road block in Alexandra. Which, if you've ever dared drive into Alexandra, you'll understand is totally unfair. I mean, you expect to be robbed or threatened or murdered when you drive into Alexandra, at least when you do it the first time. But police? You are totally not counting on any police to make an appearance.

But it does happen, trust me.

So she was stopped in the road block, and in what I can only imagine was a moment of triumph, she pulled my little sheet from her glove compartment and started reading it to the cop. Her offfense, that day, was not carrying her passport with her. Which the law says you aren't required to do, but that doesn't keep the cops from trying that particular tactic anyway, as it seems the most promising.

During our time in South Africa we were stopped for a) not carrying a passport (twice), b) not having my Traffic Register Number with me (three times), c) having an illegal radar detector mounted on my car, d) talking on the phone while driving, e) changing lanes at the last moment on the highway near the airport, f) trying to bypass traffic on an exit ramp by squeezing by on the shoulder (which of course is what taxis do all the time), g) speeding while laboring up a rather steep mountain pass, h)  not having paid my traffic fines, i) at the on-ramp onto the M1 near Melrose Arch late one Saturday evening, behind the wheel because Noisette had definitely had too much to drink, and without my driver's license, and j) "not having a letter from the American Consulate allowing me to drive on South Africa's roads."

Honestly, I'm not making this up. Looking at this long list I'm now thinking it's a miracle I ever got anything done while living in South Africa.

The funny thing is, as you can see from above, that the cops had plenty of reasons to stop me and hand out tickets for c), d), e), f), g), h), and i). But they never did, and I was always left off the hook easily. The only times they gave me a really hard time were the ones when I had done nothing wrong.

Which brings me back to my story. The same was the case with my friend in Alexandra that day. Her cop was a stubborn one. Twice she was told that she was being arrested and taken to jail because she failed to carry her passport with her, and twice she read the entire South African Road Traffic Act off her (my) sheet of paper, citing the section that states that your foreign license serves as a valid driving document as long as it's valid in its home country, is issued in one of South Africa's eleven national languages (meaning English - I doubt you'll find a foreign licensing office issuing anything in Xhosa or Sotho), and has a picture of you affixed to it.

Don't leave home without it!


Now, I have always boasted to you that I would have loved nothing more than being able to blog about a South African jail from the inside, so to speak, but I do not wish this fate on anyone else. Besides, I was totally lying. I would have absolutely shit my pants if I had ever been arrested for real.

I probably would have buckled right away and reached out for my glove compartment, in order to pull out the emergency stash of five R100 notes I kept there for just such an occasion. I would have offered that bribe after all, the bribe that I keep telling you you should never ever pay, and then I would have realized with horror that I had had to take that money out at the last car service - lest it be considered a generous tip by the well-meaning service technician cleaning up my car, yet another hazard of driving a car in South Africa - and had forgotten to put it back in.

Or, more likely, I would have thought the money was there and frantically searched for it, only to come up empty and be told by Noisette months later, during one of his visits to me in jail, that he had taken out the money ages ago to buy much-needed groceries (which in his case usually means chocolate) and forgotten to tell me. Oops!

Maybe I shouldn't have taken the threat of jail so lightly. My friend went on to tell me that asking for a passport during traffic stops has gotten to be a bit of an epidemic in Joburg lately. It was an acquaintance of hers who told her this - the one who had to part with a Rolex watch so as not to be arrested - and who has since been hired as a consultant to speak to American expats groups.

Okay - why did that never occur to me as a way to make a living? I mean other than earning $14.97 via Amazon Associates in a good month?

I could have totally made a killing peddling my how-not-to-pay-bribes know-how to wide-eyed newly-arrived foreigners. I could have mass-produced copies of the South African Road Traffic Act and laminated them and sold them after giving my speech to sell-out crowds.

I mean, who needs to write a book with such a good business model?

Instead, I've been spilling all my secrets here for free, with a complimentary copy of your get-out-of-jail card to boot.

Go print it now. I won't be telling you again. And if you've made use of my handy-dandy document already, you are now free to make a donation in gratitude:


Or, come to think of it, go LIKE my Facebook page. Nothing makes me happier than when I get new LIKES. It's practically like printing money.