Should I Get a South African Driver’s License?

“A ticket? What you want a ticket for, huh?”- The friendly official at the driver’s license office in Randburg.

It always amazes me how soon we forget. It’s only been three months, but now that our pictures are hung and I have a car and cell phone, I feel sufficiently settled that I’m already starting to forget my “hardships” from the first few weeks. Which is why yesterday I set out on another errand somewhat unprepared.

I had decided that it was time to get my South African driver’s license. It had been on my long-term list from the time I had googled the topic and found that after a year of living here, you’d have to get a local license. Granted, it hasn’t been a year yet, but a) my international driver’s license was somehow lost in the  move, and b) Noisette’s encounter the other day with the police made me think that a local license was better.

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So I didn’t further research the topic and instead set out on a bright morning towards Randburg, the place I’d also registered the car, armed with the following: My U.S. driver’s license, my passport, the 35-page lease agreement for proof of residence, by now somewhat dog-eared from all the toting around, and the Telkom and bank statements thrown in for good measure. But as I got closer, I started to have misgivings – surely I would need cash? How much? As I pulled into the parking lot and saw dozens of guys with “passport photograph” placards on display, I realized that I would need those as well. This was confirmed when I squeezed into a door that was about to be closed “due to overflow.” I took the proffered form, got assurances that I’d be let back in (it was way before closing time but they shut the door anyway) and set out to get passport pictures. It was easily done. For R45 I was handed four pictures plus the phone number of the guy, offering not a date but to stand in line for me, for “however much I was willing to pay.” I declined for the time being, since I was already here, and proceeded back to the end of the line. Which did NOT move! The gentleman in front of me and I timed our movement, while we had a pleasant conversation – he turned out to be a writer working on a novel about South Africa – and in about half an hour we had moved up just a few meters. We tried to estimate the length of the line, which worked itself around a corner and upstairs, where it disappeared from view into the netherworld of bureaucracy, and calculated that it would be at least another 2 hours.

Just as I was wondering if I shouldn’t take up the photographer’s stand-in-line offer, a man appeared from upstairs and proceeded to bark orders in heavily Afrikaans-accented English. He wanted to see all those of us who were renewing their license but didn’t have a fingerprint on the back. At first I didn’t think he could  mean me, since I wasn’t renewing a license, but then I thought I’d ask to make sure.

“What if you have a foreign license?” I offered timidly.

All eyes, about 120 of them, turned to me instantly. It had been a boring wait and everyone was eager for some excitement.

“Then you shouldn’t be here,” he lectured, clearly enjoying himself.

I could only get a driver’s license if I had a South African ID card, I was told. But I wasn’t going to give up that easily, and proceeded to ask more questions, everybody hanging on my lips. Finally, I asked him what to do if I got a ticket and didn’t have a local license.

“A ticket? What you want a ticket for, huh?” was all he could say to that.

I assured him that I didn’t WANT a ticket but that it was entirely possible that I’d get stopped.

“Well, you tell them that the law says that you can use your foreign license as long as it hasn’t expired. Next!” were his final words to me.

Okay, well then, I said to my new friend, the writer, and made my way to the door – almost disappointed that I’d never find out what lay beyond those stairs and how long it would have taken to advance to the Holy Grail. But at least I’ve now gotten an answer for my fellow expats on when and whether to apply for a local driver’s license.

You can’t, and you don’t need to.

Note: I’ve since then been stopped by the police (routine road blocks, they do them all the time), and was admonished to get an international license ASAP. But when I told my little story from above, the police officer wasn’t sure at all whether I indeed needed an international license or not. I think it’s just something they say to intimidate you in hopes of wheedling some money out of you, honestly. However, if you do want to get an international license just to be on the safe side, you should do so while STILL IN YOUR HOME COUNTRY as it can only be gotten there. Also, make sure your regular license doesn’t expire soon, as the international license is only good in conjunction with the normal one. All in all, I’m quite happy to keep using my Kansas license, although I do get nervous about losing it. The best bet would probably be to go to a police station and get a certified copy of it to tote around instead of the real thing.

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