Joburg Expat: So You've Been Held Up By South African Traffic Police? You're Not the First One.

February 29, 2016

So You've Been Held Up By South African Traffic Police? You're Not the First One.


Last week, I told you how to go about transferring your foreign driver's license to a South African one. Or how to just go ahead and use your foreign license if you're only a temporary resident and can't get a South African license.

Today, we'll take a look at what might come next.

So you've done your homework. You've followed all my advice, and you start happily driving on South African roads. Until one beautiful Sunday morning - it always happens on a Sunday morning - you come to an abrupt halt.

Road block. 

License please! You proffer your foreign license to the outstretched hand, somewhat confidently.

"Aaaah, you from USA!" says the policeman.

You beam at him.

"It's such a nice car you have, Mami," he goes on. You can tell he is leading up to something. "Can I see your Traffic Register Number," he goes on.

Bam! Right into the thick of things.

Now, I don't want to get into Traffic Register Numbers here. But you should know that you are not required to carry this document with you. It can't hurt to have a copy in your car, but it's not required. (For advice on what exactly you should carry in your glove compartment, read Plan B for When the Cops Stop Me Again.)

Because you have paid attention, you know this, and tell the policeman that you know it and that he should know it too.

But oh, he's a wily one. New tack:

"Your husband, where he works, Mami?"

You have no idea why this is relevant, but you tell the policeman the place of your husband's employment.

"Is this car registered to your husband?"

You admit that yes, it is. You take silent note that some sweat has formed under your arms.

"Then where is the written permission from your husband to drive his car?"

At this point, you might be forgiven to feel a slight sense of panic. Don't.

Instead, you patiently explain that no, there is no such permission letter, and that no such thing is required. Your answer should be the same if you're asked for any number of other documents you supposedly need, like your passport, a marriage certificate, or perhaps a letter from his Excellency the American Ambassador to South Africa allowing you to drive on its roads.

Whatever you do, please, oh puh-leeeeeeease do not pay a bribe just because your patience is wearing thin. In fact, a bit of patience is all that's required to weather this particular storm. You've made it this far, and now you wait him out, you show that you are that rare breed, a white woman with time on her hands, to slightly rephrase the words of one of my favorite African authors, Peter Godwin. Don't worry if he threatens to take you to the police station or even jail. No expat has ever been taken to a South African jail as a result of a traffic stop.

How do I know this?

Because I would have heard about it. I've become the go-to expert for South African traffic cop stories, whether they are my own or those of other people. So far, no jails. It would be far too much hassle for a traffic cop to make good on this threat (read the first comment below to see this confirmed.) But I'd love to be proven otherwise, so if you've recently spent time in a South African jail as a result of a traffic violation, please tell us your tale!

And now I wish you safe and happy travels on South Africa's roads.