Part 1 of a 3-part series. Read part 2.

I moved to South Africa in August 2010. In December 2013, I finally bought a car.

Me and car small

Cute, right? I love tiny cars. This photo was taken by my former boxing buddy Henrike, who sold me the car when she relocated to Abidjan. Thanks, Henrike.

Buying the car — as in paying Henrike and taking possession of the keys — was the easy part. Registering the car in my name was the hard part. I’ve heard many expat stories over the years about how difficult it is to register a car in South Africa. I prepared for the worst. And yet this experience nearly broke me.

Fortunately, this experience makes a great story. I took notes throughout the process so I could recount it accurately in my blog. It’s a bit long so bear with me:

Randburg Licensing Department. Wednesday, December 11.

After a couple of u-turns, I finally locate the Randburg Licensing Department near the corner of Bram Fisher Drive and Main Road. I couldn’t find any concrete information about which of the many Joburg licensing offices I am supposed to go to, but everyone says Randburg is the best place. So, here I am.

The huge parking lot is packed. I had hoped the office would be quiet in mid-December, as many Joburgers have already fled town for the holidays. In fact, the opposite is true — everyone and their mother is at the vehicle licensing office, trying to get their issues resolved before the end of the year.

I find a parking spot next to a pile of dirt, wander around a bit, and eventually find the entrance to the licensing office. I walk inside and approach the “Help Desk”. Despite the crowd I reach the window quickly, probably because “the system is down” and no one can actually do anything.

[Note: I shot all these licensing office photos on the sly. As horrible as the photos look, I assure you that the real places are worse.]

Randburg1 small

That “System Down” sign is ominous. I decide to ignore it. 

Me (smiling): Hello, how are you?

Licensing man (looking bored): Fine, how are you?

Me: I’m fine. I need to register a car.

I pass the man my papers — the completed forms that I downloaded online, my car’s road-worthiness certificate, certified copies of my passport (the main page and the visa page) and my housing lease, the car’s registration certificate, passport photos, etc. — as well as my actual passport. Licensing man flips through my passport, stopping at my old life-partner visa page.

Licensing man: Your spouse needs to be here.

Me: No, that’s my old visa. I have a work visa now…My partner died. (I add that last part in hopes of gaining sympathy. No dice.)

Licensing man (flipping to my new visa page): Where is your traffic register number?

Me: I don’t have one yet. I need to get one.

[In case you’re wondering, a traffic register number is a special document that foreigners need to register a car in South Africa. The traffic register number takes the place of a South African ID book, allowing foreigners to be identified in the system. If you are a foreigner, no one at the licensing department will give you the time of day until you have a traffic register number.]

Licensing man: We take traffic register number applications on Wednesdays from 7:30 to 10:00 a.m.

Today is Wednesday. I look at my watch. 11:00 a.m.

Me: How was I supposed to know to come on Wednesday from 7:30 to 10:00 a.m.? [I don’t know why I ask questions like this.]

Licensing man (shrugging): You should have come before.

Me: Is there anywhere I can go to apply before next Wednesday?

Licensing man: You can go to Langlaagte. 

Me: Can I register my car there too?

Licensing man: Yes.

Me: Okay, thanks.

I leave.

Langlaagte Licensing Department. Thursday, December 12.

I arrive at the Langlaagte Licensing Department at 7:30 the next morning. Langlaagte is on Main Reef Road, near Crown Mines. Turning into the entrance, I pass through a gauntlet of hawkers. “Passport photo?” they shout, gesturing and tapping my window. “Police clearance?” I drive on.

The parking lot of the Langlaagte Licensing Department feels like a refugee camp. It’s baking hot and there is no shade. People mill about looking desperate.

The licensing building itself is surrounded by a tall metal fence. A security guard stands at the entrance — a squeaky revolving grate resembling a monster’s jaws. A crowd is clustered outside the entrance. No one is going in.


Langlaagte. Place of nightmares.

I stand on the edge of the crowd. The man standing next to me snorts disdainfully.

Me: What’s happening?

Disdainful man: The power is out. I was here all day yesterday, waiting.

Me: How long has the power been out?

Disdainful man: Since Tuesday.

I stand a bit longer.

“What are you all waiting for?” I hear a man say behind me. “The power is out and they can’t find the fault. Nothing will happen here today.” I turn around and look at the man. He speaks authoritatively, as if he knows things.

Me: I need to apply for a traffic register number. Where should I go?

Authoritative man: Go to Roodepoort. Tell them the power is out at Langlaagte. They will help you there.

Me: Okay, thanks.

I don’t need much encouragement to get the hell out of Langlaagte.

I go home. Roodepoort is quite far from Melville and I’m getting sick of driving around, even in my cute new car. I decide to call the Roodepoort Licensing Office before missioning all the way there.

I find a website listing the phone numbers of all the Joburg licensing departments. I dial Roodepoort and get a perpetual busy signal. I dial Langaagte and Randburg, too, just for kicks. No answer.

Roodepoort Licensing Department. Friday, December 13.

The next morning, I drive 30 minutes to the far western suburb of Roodepoort. Roodepoort, like Randburg and Langlaagte, is a depressing part of town. The licensing office building itself, however, is rather cute and historic-looking. I feel hopeful as I walk in. There is no line. I stride to an open window and smile.

Me: I need to apply for a traffic register number.

Licensing man (shaking head): No, you can’t. Applications are closed.

Me: Closed? What do you mean?

Licensing man: We are not accepting any more traffic register number applications until February.

Me: Why?

Licensing man: Because we have too many.

Me. Oh. Hmm. Where should I go then?

Licensing man: You can go to Langlaagte.

Me: The power is out at Langlaagte. It’s been out since Tuesday.

Licensing man: Then go to Randburg.

And thus, I have come full-circle.


Three days. Three horrible, far-flung vehicle licensing offices. Zero traffic register numbers. Zero cars registered.

To be continued.

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