When you move to South Africa, you will become one of two things:
- work around the clock
- be stuck in traffic for two hours every day
- theoretically have the right to sign a cell phone contract, buy a car, or change your internet data bundle
- lead the glamorous life of the expat spouse
- be in charge of signing the cell phone contract, buying a car, and changing the internet data bundle
- have no permission to do any of these things
South Africa, you see, is “so 1950s” as one of my readers recently remarked. Nowhere else that I’ve ever lived have I been made to feel my housewife label so unforgivingly as here in South Africa. “Certainly mam, we can upgrade your SMS bundle, if just the account holder could call us first to give his okay.”
The account holder, inevitably, is Noisette. In some cases this is due to the fact that he was the only one here when these things needed signing up for, like our Telkom phone and ADSL line. A mistake I can only warn future expats from committing. Wherever possible, the spouse is the one who needs to be the account holder. Because the spouse is the one dealing with all these accounts on a daily basis. Sadly, it’s not always possible. Some documents can only be obtained by the work permit holder, like the infamous Traffic Register Number, the small but essential prerequisite of buying a car in South Africa. Some people have told me the spouse can get one too (in fact might be required to) but on the day that I showed up for it, it wasn’t me they wanted, I can assure you that. It was Noisette, and he had to go there twice, grumbling for months how he really didn’t have time for this kind of crap.
If you want to sign a cell phone contract, you need the work permit holder’s signature. Mind you, at least in that case he/she doesn’t have to show up in person. Just pulling out the dog-eared passport copy I had learned early on to tote around with me was sufficient evidence of my connection to an income-producing legal alien to the folks at the Vodacom shop. After they had sent me home three times for various other documents.
I’ve heard some people haven’t been able to buy foreign currency without a work permit, but that has never been a problem for me. My problem, rather, was that I didn’t have the foresight to bring my passport as well as my airline tickets with me to the bank as proof that I was indeed traveling abroad. My question is, who even still HAS airline tickets these days? But that’s what the bank wanted to see and make copies of and stamp about seventeen times before putting it into a binder that I can only imagine is transported into some underground vault by little goblins riding rollercoaster carts past fire-breathing dragons.
My suspicion is that some of this bureaucracy is just a leftover from South Africa’s apartheid days. That whole system thrived on an enormous bureaucracy. Just imagine, trying to classify people into fifteen different skin colors and administering potential changes of skin color when somebody had a valid objection to their status. That all must have required tons of paperwork and a certain fondness for it. When I applied for our traffic register number (when indeed I still thought I could in fact apply, which turned out to be false) I was asked what nationality I was, and upon proclaiming German (to match with my German passport at the time) I was given a specific form with a field where lo and behold, I needed to check East or West Germany. I briefly contemplated educating the clerk about the finer points of German history, namely that West and East Germany had ceased to exist more than twenty years ago, but thought better of it. When you are navigating through South Africa’s government bureaucracy, you avoid arguing with clerks.
I guess in a roundabout way I can manufacture this into yet another Expat Tip: You might be just The Spouse, but whenever possible make sure you’re The Account-Holder-Spouse.
Or get busy practicing your spouse’s voice.