It is hard to understand the workings of a South African traffic cop’s mind. Or maybe it is not so hard and he/she is always thinking about one thing and one thing only, and that is money. But why then are they so inconsistent?
I was driving out towards Diepsloot the other day. It was one of those hectic days with kids needing to go in three different directions and me scrambling to keep it all organized in my head, and therefore a little preoccupied. I was taking Sunshine to horse riding, and Impatience was supposed to follow later with a friend, but because I hadn’t told her yet, she called me to find out what was going on. So I’m talking to her on the phone while driving, and since traffic is moving slowly due to some obstruction I can sort of see ahead, I make a move to pass the car stopped in front of me on the left. Well – the obstruction turns out to be a roadblock, and I almost run over the traffic cop who virtually shoots up out of the ground in front of me. Yikes! I can’t believe this is happening to me!
I roll down my window totally expecting to get a ticket and pay big time. I mean, I was talking on the phone, which is forbidden, and passing a car on the left is also a no-no (although no one ever seems to stop the taxis from doing it). The cop promptly informs me of those very offenses in a stern voice. He points to my hands-free set and chastises me for not using it. I meekly nod my head and agree with everything he says. So-sorry-sir, you-are-right-sir, it-was-just-that-my-daughter-called-and-I-wanted-to-answer-quickly-in-case-of-emergency-sir, I-won’t-do-it-again-sir. I could have you arrested for this, he says.
This is where my pulse actually slows down. I’ve been threatened with arrest several times already, but it never happens. In fact, I think this is because I’m secretly hoping to be arrested so that I can write a blog post about it (Noisette tells me I’m crazy). When the cops sense that you’re not scared, they seem to lose their steam. Sure enough, this one just tells me to use the hands-free set in the future and waves me through. Here he was, with an actual case, not just some fictitious concoction designed to extort expats, and he didn’t even take advantage of it. Upon my return a few minutes later, the roadblock was gone. So maybe he was at the end of his shift and didn’t want to bother?
But then I got into a similar situation again not long afterwards. I was driving visitors to the airport – once again – but somehow almost missed the exit off the motorway. I should have just kept going and used the next exit to turn around, but thought I had enough space to squeeze in on the left. I did, but unfortunately, up ahead there was a police control and I was immediately waved over. This was not a roadblock stopping random cars, this was a patrol looking specifically for drivers doing exactly what I had just done. Here we go again, I thought. This time for sure I have to pay.
I roll down my window (I’m getting good at that!). The guy gives me the evil eye like you wouldn’t believe. What the hell was I thinking, he growls. I explain that I was trying to get these visitors here to the airport and that my GPS was late informing me of the turn-off (which was true). Why I wasn’t following the signs, he demands. We have plenty of signs here telling you where to go (here he points to all the signs and I dutifully look at them). I apologize. I wait for the verdict. I’m sure this time I’m handed a ticket. It would be totally justified. But what I get is: “Look at me! I’m giving you one last chance. Do you understand what I mean?” And he stares even harder into my eyes.
Now I’m confused. What do I say? If I say yes, does that mean I’m agreeing to pay a bribe? If I say no, does that mean I don’t get one more chance? I’m frozen with indecision, staring back blankly. My passengers are fidgeting, as they have a flight to catch. He repeats his thing about giving me one last chance. And now I make my decision. Yes sir, I chirp brightly, flash him a smile, roll up my window, and slowly drive away, giving them a chance to stop me in case I have somehow misread the situation. But no, once again I get away without a hitch.
What the hell? Why didn’t they give me a ticket? I am beginning to think that they don’t even have any tickets with them to give out. Why else wouldn’t they just write me up, especially when realizing that no money is forthcoming, that nothing will ever so discreetly be pressed into their hands? Or are they just so baffled that I don’t even try to dispute it that they forget to do their job? Peter Godwin, in When a Crocodile Eats the Sun, may have gotten to the heart of this when he describes his experience of a roadblock in Zimbabwe:
“He looks confused […]. I am supposed to be in a hurry, offer a bribe, and be allowed on my way. but no, I am a freak. A white man with time on his hands.”
Add to this the time I was driving home in Noisette’s car after a party and didn’t even have my license with me, and you will see the pattern: I have never once gotten a ticket when I should have, but I have been harassed by cops plenty of times when I was innocent. Which is why I was desperately waiting for another innocent stop, to use my Plan B for When the Cops Stop me Again on the next guy trying to extort a bribe from me, but all these stops for cause were getting in my way!
So I was actually a bit excited when I drove into yet another roadblock yesterday (note to readers: Sundays are especially risky – I came upon no less than five roadblocks today; apparently, Sunday morning is when they catch the most drunk drivers). I was coming down London Road going into Alexandra, and the prospect of having to deal with the police there, of all places, made my stomach drop, I must admit. Plus I was meeting there with a group of friends to take them to an Alexandra Baseball game, and now I felt bad for having lured them into a trap, so to speak. But I hadn’t done anything wrong, for once, so there was hope that my traffic act would finally get its day in the sun.
Always with me in my glove compartment: South Africa Road Traffic Act
And boy, did I enjoy my shining moment! By now you know the routine. I rolled down my window, heart beating with anticipation, handed over the license, and watched the cop study it for a while. You could almost see his brain working out a plan of attack. I was actually wondering – would it be the “no passport” tactic Noisette ran into the other day? Or the “illegal radar jammer on your car” one? It ended up being “no traffic register certificate on you.” I’ve had that one before as well. Remember how when you’re buying a car in South Africa as a foreigner you have to apply for a traffic register number? Well, he was telling me that I should have the certificate with that number on me. To be honest, he could be right – in fact, I went back to my own post about Tips on Buying a Car in South Africa, and I myself told you to carry a copy of it with you. Amazing the things that I write and forget!
But I wasn’t going to let a little detail like that derail me. Plus, who knows if the certificate would have been enough. I remember a friend in this very situation, who then got chastised because the traffic register number was in her husband’s name and not her own, and without a letter from her husband authorizing her to use the car (as well as a marriage certificate to show she is married to him, I’m sure) she could be arrested for illegally driving it. So you see, there is no end to these things. In any case, I politely told the policeman that he was wrong, that I had been to the Randburg licensing office and specifically been told that my foreign license was sufficient and to make sure I told any policemen who might stop me this very fact. He insisted that I needed the traffic register number, and I reached into the glove compartment with a flourish – drumroll here – and waved my copy of the South African Road Traffic Act in his face. I pointed out the highlighted sections pertaining to the license and showed him that mine qualified as it is written in English and has a picture of me on it. That definitely took the wind from his sails. He made a few more feeble attempts to intimidate me, but you could see his resolve had been shaken. I kept reading the Road Traffic Act to him until he waved me on in disgust.
Ha! In your face, corrupt policeman! This is for all my friends and other expats who have been harassed before.