February 27, 2014

How to Register a Car in South Africa

More car-related blog posts on Joburg Expat:

Buying a car in South Africa is relatively straightforward. You pay, you get the keys, more or less. It's the registering of your car which will have the potential to drive you insane*, so I'd like to give you a quick overview.

The main reason many expats will question their sanity a few weeks into their stay in South Africa is a little document called Traffic Register Number. You need one before you, a foreigner, can register your car. Most South African nationals don't know this, because they just have to show their ID and have never had a problem with it, and consequently will give you the wrong information when asked. Even car dealerships, which will happily offer to register the car for you, typically don't know that they can't, in fact, do that.

Traffic Register Numbers

Traffic Register Numbers (TRNs) have to be applied for in person. You can either first apply for the TRN and then register your actual car when you pick up the TRN, or you can apply for both at the same time (recommended).

For your TRN, you will need the following documents, which you should have already gotten used to carrying around with you:

  • Lease agreement
  • Passport, including valid work visa
  • Passport pictures
  • Foreign driver's license
To register the car at the same time, bring these documents, which the seller should have provided you with:

  • Roadworthiness certificate
  • Current registration
  • Invoice/your proof of payment

The Licensing Department

In order to obtain your Traffic Register Number, you have to take these documents to your closest Licensing Department.

If, like most expats, you live anywhere in the Northern Suburbs of Johannesburg, this will be the Randburg Civic Centre at the Corner of Bram Fischer Drive and Jan Smuts Avenue in Randburg. If you don't live in the Northern Suburbs, check out this list of all Licensing Offices in Johannesburg (click through all three pages of the list). If you don't live in Johannesburg at all, Google a list of licensing offices in your city.

Make sure you call ahead to find out which one applies to you, and what their hours are for Traffic Register Number applications. But be prepared for two things: 1) no one might pick up the phone, and 2) they might not in fact know the answer. You might have to call several times to triangulate all answers to form your best guess as to where you should go at what time.

Let's say you live in the Northern Suburbs of Joburg. In that case, you take all of the above documents to the Randburg Civic Centre on Wednesdays from 7:30 to 10:00 am. This, as of the time of this writing, is the only time you can make your Traffic Register Number application. It might change again, or it might not be true every week, but this has been the latest information from expats who have tried. Go to the information desk, and ask for an application for a Traffic Register Number as well as an application for the Certificate of Registration. You will be told where to go after you've filled them in. Don't be discouraged if the lines are long. Most people will be there for other matters, and you usually don't have to wait too long to have your turn.

Who Can Apply for a TRN?

I realize I have said "you," but I haven't specified who that "you" is. Because if you're "only the spouse," you will not have any luck with this errand.

Only the breadwinner, the one with the work visa, and presumably the one with the bank account, is entitled to a Traffic Register Number. I am aware that this may not always be true - stories where spouses have obtained Traffic Register Numbers have reached my ears - but you can save yourself some headaches and return visits by sending the work permit holder to apply.

The application process will take a few days, meaning you will have to return. If all goes well, this will be on the Friday following the Wednesday you applied, and on that day you will receive your Traffic Register Number. If you were able to turn in the application for the Certificate of Registration at the same time, you will now receive that as well, or you can turn it in now, and hopefully receive both documents on the same day.

This is what they will look like:

Your Certificate of Registration for your car will look like this;
you will get a second, similar copy, from which you cut out
the round registration disk for your windshield.

Traffic Register Number Certificate; note that you only have
to apply for this once, it will be valid for the purchase of as many
cars as you wish; it's also a good idea to keep a copy in your car.

Getting Ready to Drive in South Africa

When all is said and done, you should come home from the Licensing Office bearing these things:

  • Traffic Register Number Certificate (make a copy to keep in your car)
  • Certificate of Registration
  • License Disk (cut out and affix to upper left corner of your windshield from the inside)
  • License Tags (to be taped on with double sided tape, front and back)

The round license disk will have to be renewed every year, but that's another story.

All that's left for you to do now is to purchase an insurance policy for your car, if you haven't already done so. Most insurance companies will insure your vehicle over the phone according to the make of the car, and then follow up with an at-home visit to make sure you actually own a car and aren't buying phantom insurance. They will also most likely require you to have a tracking service like Tracker or Altech Netstar for about R180 per month.

By the way, the one thing you won’t need to get is a driver's license. Your foreign license is perfectly fine as long as it is valid.

*We were recently made aware that there is a service foreigners can use to receive their TRN without having to do it themselves. It comes recommended by several people who used it successfully. All you need to provide is your passport copy, work permit copy, lease agreement copy, 2 passport photos, proof of address from a bill if possible and copy of your driver's license. This service (located near Fourways Gardens) then files the paperwork for you and within 1-3 days your TRN is ready. The cost is 650 rands. If you're interested, please contact Joburg Expat and we will provide you with the contact details.

Did you find this article helpful? Find Joburg Expat on Facebook. And check these other posts about moving to South Africa:

FAQs about Moving to South Africa
Finding a House in Johannesburg: Part 1
Moving Checklist
South Africa: All you Need to Know about Banking, Shopping, Healthcare, and More
Private Schools in Johannesburg

February 20, 2014

Which Charger Should I Get for my Kindle in South Africa?

As an expat in South Africa, your Kindle may very well be your most prized possession. Books are expensive, shipping from overseas is not very reliable, and libraries are more or less non-existent. (I've written about public libraries in Johannesburg here, but don't hold your breath.)

I've told you about how your Kindle works in South Africa here and here. But recently I got a question about Kindle chargers and adapters, and I thought my answer warrants a blog post of its own.


Please can you help me? I live in California, I'm going to visit my Dad in Pretoria and want to buy him a Kindle. Do I need an adapter and what should I buy? Amazon has been no help to me at all, I've spent over 40 minutes with customer service and they still can't tell me! Thanks so much!


Option 1: The Kindle uses the same exact charger as a Blackberry. Does your Dad have a Blackberry? Then you wouldn't have to get him a charger at all. He could use his Blackberry charger for the Kindle and be totally fine.

Option 2: Buy him the Kindle charger on Amazon.com (the regular one fitting into a US outlet) and in addition buy a universal adapter plug - it will fit into a South African outlet, and anything will fit into it on the other side, including European and American plugs. I'm thinking you'll need one or more of them anyway when you travel, for all YOUR chargers from the US. You could then just leave one of them with your Dad when you return home. The universal adapter plug that we used in South Africa, and really liked, is the VCT VP110 Universal Travel Outlet Plug Adapter for South Africa from Amazon.com.

In case you are wondering, you don't have to worry about the voltage problem (South African voltage is 220V like in Europe, versus 120V in the U.S.) - both Kindle and Blackberry chargers cover the whole range of voltages. You really just have to get an adapter plug that allows for the American plug to be put into a South African outlet. And don't think that buying a Kindle from Amazon in the UK will change anything - you'll still need an adapter plug for the European Kindle charger to fit into the South African outlet, the Kindle will likely cost more in Europe, AND you'll have to now have it shipped from Europe to South Africa, a risky proposition (in case you've been following my Postal Service series). Bringing the Kindle from the United States when you are visiting is by far the best way to go.

And now, go ahead and buy that Kindle. Do it by clicking the text link or the link below - it will get me some much appreciated advertising dollars from Amazon:-). Even if you don't buy that one but another kind, it will still be linked back to my site. Thank you!

February 13, 2014

Groenkloof, Negentienhonderd, and Other Tongue Twisters

I'm in the process of doing final edits on my upcoming Kilimanjaro book (which is one reason why the posting frequency here on Joburg Expat might have recently slowed down - visit my Author Website for more book news), and I came across a passage where I described our training hike in Groenkloof Nature Reserve near Pretoria. Mike, one of my co-hikers, had urged us all to carry twelve kilograms of bricks in our backpacks, which had prompted me to write the following:

By the way, I’m not sure what’s harder: carrying twelve kilograms worth of bricks, or pronouncing “Ghghghghgroenkloof.”
This deserves a bit of explanation, so I thought it would make a fun blog post for future (and current) expats in South Africa.

As you can see, that "G" in Groenkloof (which means something like green gorge) is not pronounced the way most people would think of pronouncing a G when they come across one. Even though I speak German, a language itself not without its own periodic table of guttural sounds, South Africa has opened up a whole new dimension for me in this regard. It was like discovering subatomic particles after you’ve just mastered mechanics. If a word is in any way connected to Afrikaans, the language of the Boers and Voortrekkers, the letter G is basically out of bounds for you as the uninitiated, wherever it might appear. You can go the way of most Americans and just substitute an H for every G, much like we’ve successfully done with every Mexican J we’ve come across. Or, if you’re not afraid of making a total fool of yourself, you can try to throw all the blegh! you’ve got in you at any stray G coming your way and hope for the best. You really gotta pull it out from way down your throat, without accidentally hawking up too much phlegm. After living in South Africa for years, you might dare taking the ultimate test, which is pronouncing the number 1999 – Negentienhonderd nege en negentig – in Afrikaans (I forgot to mention you sort of have to roll your Rs too).

I get that they have their language and are entitled to all the throat-clearing they can muster, but where I get irritated is when every G out there gets appropriated as if it were their own. As in Gaborone, the capital of Botswana. Or the radio advertisement I used to hear on Radio Jacaranda, where an announcer was praising the virtues of a Volkswaghghghgen. I felt like driving straight to that studio, pulling the guy out of his chair by his lapels, and growling: “This is our G, and it is a proper one, do not ever mess with it again!”

Don’t even get me started on Xhosa, another one of South Africa’s eleven official languages. While a guttural sound is at least in the realm of what’s possible with the average human vocal chords, I am not so sure if tongue-clicking is entirely of this world. You think you can click with your tongue when you first hear it. But then you realize that a) you cannot produce at least five different sounding clicks, and b) you cannot possibly click with your tongue and speak at the same time. It’s either one or the other. I’m sure when I try to pronounce anything in Xhosa, I sound like a hopeless stutterer.

So I'll leave you to perform some vocal acrobatics with guttural and clicking noises. To pass the time, here are some pictures of Groenkloof Nature Reserve, a place well worth visiting if you find yourself in need of an excursion away from the city:

Do you see what I see?

Yep, giraffes! That's what I love about life in Joburg. You could bump into a giraffe anytime.

A good look at the Voortrekker Monument. See here for more pictures and the story.

View of Pretoria from Groenkloof

This was when Noisette and I had gone off in the wrong direction. Groenkloof is definitely
big enough to get lost in, even though it's practically in the city.

February 7, 2014

Project Postal Service. Or, What Really WAS in Those Christmas Cards?

Some of you have been awaiting this blog post for quite some time. I'm sorry that it is quite lengthy, but there really wasn't a good way to break it into two parts.

Brief back story: I recently decided to conduct an experiment - Was the South African postal service (SAPO) really as bad as my experience suggested, or was I unfairly biased against it? How would it compare to other postal services around the world?

My experiment was prompted by a story I wrote about corruption in South Africa. Among other things, I touched on what I called thievery in the postal service, and a reader took issue with that. All my anecdotal evidence was quaint, he said, but where was my factual evidence? At first I bristled over "anecdotal." There is nothing anecdotal about your kids not receiving their Christmas presents from aunts and uncles because they disappeared in the post somewhere. It is hard cold fact. And not ever having had this happen to us before, over years and years of living continents removed from friends and family, the conclusion that the South African postal service must be to blame was not very hard to arrive at. If you read the comments under each of the above blog posts, you will see that I am not the only one. Even Jacob Zuma, South Africa's president, seems to agree with me that something is amiss at SAPO.

But then I thought, why not get some more hard facts, not just about South Africa but on an international scale? The timing could not have been better. I was just sitting down to a mountain of Christmas cards that needed to be addressed and sent out. Almost 150 of them. What if I tracked how long it took for them to get there?

And that's exactly what I did. As I addressed my stack of cards, I built an Excel spreadsheet listing everyone receiving a card and their country, as well as the date sent and date received. I added some snazzy code to show the number of days in transit as soon as there was an arrival date, I sent out emails and Facebook messages to everyone advising them of the experiment and the need to report back, and then I sat down to wait eagerly for the first results to pour back in.

Project Postal Service in my living room, waiting to begin.

It almost felt like election night. I could not wait to get to my email inbox each morning and check my Facebook and text messages every few minutes, in hopes that yet another card could be marked off. Never mind that it was less a deluge than a trickle, and that even now, after the 6-week deadline I had originally set as end point, I still have 14 cards that are unaccounted for.

Here are the raw numbers, ranked in ascending order of average transit time:

CountrySentReceivedMissingAvg DaysMax Days
South Africa

The outcome was predictable in some ways, but surprising in others. Here is my analysis:

  1. The speed with which the U.S. Postal Service can operate is amazing, especially if you take into account cost and convenience. For just 46 cents, all I had to do was put the stamped letter into my mailbox at the end of the driveway and raise the flag. It was picked up the same day, brought to the local collection center, or so I presume, was sorted that very night, and delivered the very next day within the Nashville area. It can't get much more efficient than that. I've had emails that have taken longer to deliver.
  2. A success rate of 68 out of 70 is very good. The two missing cards? Precisely those which were sent to the U.S. addresses of friends living in South Africa. Presumably, those cards are still in transit in the corporate mail pouch, or lost in the office mail.
  3. But not all of the United States is equally efficient. Granted, it makes sense for mail to take longer the farther the distance traveled, but only to a certain point. The average delivery time within the U.S. was three days, but some places took up to seven. Given that this was sent on a Monday in a week without holidays and still two weeks to go until Christmas, every letter should have arrived by Friday at the very latest. I'm aware that some people might not have checked as diligently as I would have liked, but given that I harassed everybody with multiple Facebook and text messages to "go check your mailboxes right this minute" I am pretty sure that my counts are fairly accurate.
  4. The most impressive inner-U.S. feat was the delivery to Dewees Island in South Carolina in only three days. After having just visited there and seen the island post box that gets emptied and distributed by the local fire chief, in addition to the fact that people (and mail) can only get there by ferry, Dewees should have gotten last place rather than Denver and New Jersey.
  5. The U.S. Postal Service is not very good at returning undeliverable mail to the sender. Of several people who had had a change of address, only one letter was returned. On the plus side, another letter did end up getting delivered, even though the address had changed more than a year ago and the forwarding order expired, because of an alert letter carrier who remembered the family in question.
  6. As predicted, the German postal service was the most efficient of all with the shortest average international delivery time of 8 days*. Granted, Frankfurt might be one of the first international locations to receive mail from essentially anywhere, and especially from the U.S., given its central European location and busy airport, thereby giving Germany an advantage without even having employed its own postal service. But considering all the numbers I'd still say Germany is pretty darn good at delivering mail. They just know how to move stuff fast.
  7. This doesn't mean that Germany overall was very efficient in terms of my experiment. Nowhere else did I have to dig and cajole and query so much as to whether my cards had made it as in Germany. And no other country recorded even close to as many missing cards. Although this might not be as much a function of country as of the average age of the recipients, also known as My Relatives, and their refusal to move up to the rather ancient times of the 1990s with the acquisition of an email address. I drew the line at having to call people I haven't spoken to in years to see if my card got there.
  8. Singapore, often lauded as one of the most efficient countries, was surprisingly slow. Even though my sample size was only two, the fact that both letters took exactly 17 days to get there lets me believe that the slowness was not a one-time fluke.
  9. South Africa, also predictably, came in last at an average of a mind-boggling 27 days (although the first delivery there tied with Singapore at 17 days), and an even more mind-boggling longest transit time of 44 days. It did beat Germany in terms of the success rate, though as I mentioned this is mainly due to me giving up on cajoling a response out of my German relatives, some of whom I know will send me a thank you letter sometime this summer.
  10. On the other hand, the Against-All-Odds award also goes to South Africa, with one card delivered where the post office number was wrong, and another where it was missing altogether. It turns out when things are difficult, people are willing to go the extra mile. 
  11. Technically, Mauritius and The Philippines scored even worse than South Africa, with a total failure on all fronts, but with a sample size of only 1 each, they are hardly representative. I haven't heard back from my Filipino contact in years and, sadly, this might mean that that person is deceased.

One of the cards that made it, against all odds.

I know that this was not the perfect experiment. For one, it was a letter with no potential value attached, like a package, or bank information, or a credit card. After all, my complaint about thievery in the South African postal system stemmed mostly from lost items of value. If ever I repeat the experiment, I should mail out DVDs or credit cards. Or, as one mean spirit suggested, chocolates laced with a laxative.

Second, it was conducted during the Christmas rush, not necessarily representative for the rest of the year. Then again, perhaps it's best to test a service when demand is at its peak, to see how well it performs when things aren't perfect.

Third, I should have either added delivery confirmation or included an incentive for people to respond. Most of us gladly receive our Christmas cards and put them away without further thought.

Fourth, South Africa has an unfair hurdle, in that people have to make an effort to get their mail, typically at a post office box they have to drive their cars to, park, and perhaps walk some distance. Not something you do every day, especially when you never receive much mail to begin with. Short of putting a GPS tracker into every single card, there is no good way of recording the exact transit time.

Fifth, South Africa has another hurdle, which is self-imposed: How the hell do you actually write a South African address? No one seems to know. In my address book, I have hundreds of U.S. addresses. They all have an identical format. Same with the German ones. Absolutely identical, no exceptions. And then I have about twenty South African addresses, and every single one comes in a different sequence. Sometimes the postal code comes after the country, sometimes the province is added, sometimes Johannesburg makes an appearance but most often it doesn't, and people using the same post box location use different postal codes. I once asked a postal clerk what our postal code was, and she gave me three of them. Throughout all our time in South Africa, I was never quite sure which one was right.

And finally, I didn't take cost into consideration. If you added "best value" to the experiment, I suspect the United States would also score out front (take notice, Americans: your postal service is not only one of the most efficient ones, it is also one of the cheapest!). My cards to South Africa cost $1.10 each, whereas a card from South Africa to the United States, according to my friend Natalie who sent 175 cards of her own, cost R22.40 (about $2.25, so twice as much). Although that price is debatable. As Natalie tells it, one year she went around to three different post offices and got three different prices to mail her Christmas cards; of course she picked the cheapest, the Rosebank post office, at R7 each, and amazingly, they all made it. No one in South Africa really seems to know how much it costs to send a letter abroad.

One unexpected outcome of the experiment? My address book has never been so scraped-clean and up-to-date as right now. I corrected addresses as needed, I tracked down long-lost contacts via LinkedIn and Facebook, and I exchanged unused email addresses for current ones.It will be such a charm mailing out cards next year, with a ready-to-go spreadsheet that I can print out for those elves in my house who address my holiday cards.

And perhaps it will be time to finally purge my Flintstones relatives who never responded at all.

* Switzerland technically tied Germany with 8 days, but given that it only had a sample size of one, it's not as statistically relevant.

February 3, 2014

Road Trip to Namaqualand

Looking back on our three years in South Africa, we didn't take nearly enough road trips. The one gigantic road trip we did take was our Tour de Namibia (otherwise known in our family as "Double Buckled in the Middle of Nowhere" - watch this space for a book of that name coming out some day), taking us through big portions of South Africa and Botswana to get there. 

Road trips are such a great way to get to know the country you live in. Which is why I'm pleased to bring you this blog post, via my dear friend Ina de Klerk, a veteran South African road-tripper and photographer. And you know what, in her account there won't be any squabbling kids or spilled Cokes on the backseat, or a fight over electronic devices, as there are bound to be when I'm the one reporting about road trips with our family. 

So sit back and enjoy the peaceful ride!

Dr. Livingstone, I presume...
by Ina de Klerk

If you should ask me about my favourite part of South Africa, my answer would likely be the last place I have been to. But there are some very special places that I always dream of going back to. One such place is the Northwest corner of South Africa, the outermost edge of the Northern Cape Province bordering Namibia. I have a special love of the Northwest. I love the simplicity of miles and miles of – nothing. Only an expanse of flat, dry country, dotted with some red Kalahari sand dunes.

Driving from Johannesburg all the way to Port Nolloth on the Atlantic seaboard can be very tiring. The way there takes you on the N14 via Upington and Springbok, over fourteen hours of straight driving. By the way, if I say Port Nolloth is in the Northwest corner of South Africa, this can be a bit misleading, because to get there from Johannesburg you actually head towards the Southwest.

In any case, I never drive straight through, because then you miss all the lovely unexpected places on the way. One such place is the town Kuruman, at about 6 hours from Johannesburg a good midway point for your trip. Kuruman is in the Kalahari, and it is a sort of oasis in that vast arid land region. It is a busy town, surrounded by manganese, lime and iron mines. It is known for two attractions: "The Eye," a spring from which about 20 million litres of water flows every day, and Moffat Mission Station.The latter is the place where I like to stop over. The tranquility of it revitalizes the soul and the peace of sitting down in the garden rests the body. 

Moffat Mission Station. All pictures © Ina de Klerk

The Mission Station also has an interesting history. From what I remember, the first missionary was killed. Scottish missionary Robert Moffat then arrived in 1820 with his wife, both sent by the London Missionary Society, and built the famous Moffat Church. This building was completed in 1838 and is still in use today. Another legacy of Robert Moffat is the Setswana Bible, translated and then printed by him on a printing press that is still on display in the mission schoolroom. It was the first bible that was ever printed in Africa.

As missionaries do, the Moffats developed a lovely garden, and it is told that their daughter Mary loved to sit under an almond tree in that garden. Although the almond tree is now just but a stump still standing, the garden is still lovely, still my favourite place to rest. The heat in the Kalahari can be severe, but even in August, during the South African winter when the trees are still bare, I always find time in my journey to go and find peace, rest and quiet, right there in Mary Moffat's garden.

In those days Kuruman served as the "Gateway to to the Interior of darkest Africa," according toThe Rough Guide to South Africa. Everybody wanting to explore Africa's interior sooner or later made his way through Kuruman. So did David Livingstone. He would take time off his journeys of exploration and stay right there at the mission, where he lived in a small room behind the main administrative building. Here he met Mary Moffat and fell in love with her. It is told that he proposed to her right under her favourite almond tree, before they set off to explore more of Africa.

The elder Moffats eventually returned to England in 1870, but the mission carried on until 1950, when it fell victim to the Group Areas Act of the newly elected Afrikaner government and their newly instituted policy of apartheid. The mission school was closed and decades of multiracial worship at the mission church came to an end.

Not everybody has the same love for the Moffat Mission Station as I have. It is not just a place of rest, but also a place of beauty. Maybe it is the presence of God at the mission station that does it, but it really brings your soul back to your body. I normally travel ‘West’ in the winter, to go and see the flowers of Namakwaland, but I have also been there in summertime, when it is lush and green – and very hot! Not to everyone's liking, but even then the garden at the Mission Station is a good place to cool down under the trees.

From Kuruman, I continue my trip to Namakwaland [the English spelling is Namaqualand, but in Afrikaans it is spelled Namakwaland]. Namakwaland is famous for its flowers, and it is these flowers that are usually the reason for my trip. If they have good rains in May, which in South Africa is late autumn, then by early August - when spring is hinting from around the corner - the land is covered for miles and miles with a carpet of colour. A vast expanse of the most beautiful flowers you can imagine!

Nothing to me is quite as beautiful as the flowers around Springbok in August, waiting for me every year at the end of the long road.

The fabled flowers of Namaqualand