Week Four – Car Buying In South Africa

Over the last two weeks we have embarked on a journey of both mind and spirit. At times it was comical, and other points it was depressing. But through it all, it felt absolutely absurd. I know, I know. This is the most ethnocentric and “Ugly American” position I can take. Let me see if I can outline the car buying process for you. If at the end of the day you still think I’m being judgmental, then I will happily re-evaluate my experience.

Before even looking at vehicles, people here need permission from the government to buy one. I say permission because the depth and sophistication of bureaucracy that needs to be navigated is a holdover from the apartheid days. It was meant to befuddle, confuse, and slow the social and economic progress of the oppressed. Under the guise of order and procedure, regulations became a standard way to prohibit people from gaining a social or economic foothold. While apartheid ended twenty-five years ago, the system used by that government is still in the D.N.A. of institutions and organizational cultures. But instead of applying mind-numbing layers of red tape to oppress certain people, it now exists and applies to everyone equally. After this experience I might start to see how and why corruption can flourish. Having a cousin working in the right office or knowing a friend who owes a you favor can be lucrative. If you don’t happen to have a personal connection to hook you up, knowing how and when to slip someone fifty Rand can get your application placed at the top of the stack or can help you bypass the lines of people waiting outside. With this in mind, we met our relocation liaison two weeks ago at the License Bureau in Centurion. She suggested we get an early start as the lines only tend to grow, and with them our chances of submitting our application on that day would diminish.

Before submitting an application for a T.R.N. (Traffic Registration Number, which is basically the file that documents that you are “in charge” of a vehicle), we needed to have a few things in order. First, and most importantly was proof of residence. Without this, you cannot hope to obtain a bank account or a cell phone or even a long term car rental. Since our lease doesn’t not officially begin until April 1, we asked for a letter from our hotel. This would suffice. We also needed passports with visas, driver’s licenses, and a copy of Erin’s employment verification. Easy enough. All of these documents seemed logical and familiar to us. In addition to these, we were told to bring four copies each of our passport photos, our birth certificates, copies of our passport pages and visas certified by our bank, and an A.N.R. form (the white one, not the blue one) filled out in BLACK pen, not blue. In addition it was suggested that an “affidavit” be signed and stamped at a police station which could help our cause. This is a sworn statement indicating why we needed a TRN (While I don’t know for sure, I think this is just another chance for someone to take home some extra cash). We passed on this option and ended up okay, but I got the feeling that its importance was determined on a case-by-case basis. At our appointed time we arrived at the traffic registration offices. They open at 9AM and the line was already 250 strong. People were standing quietly, patiently, counting the seconds with stiff upper lips. I settled in for a long day reminding myself that “This is water.” If you’re not familiar, please take ten minutes and watch the animated abbreviated version below.

<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/188418265″>This is Water-David Foster Wallace</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/user58158815″>alexander correll</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

After fifteen minutes of standing in the non-moving and ever growing line thinking about the lives of the people in front of us, we were waved to the side by our liaison. We were in the “wrong” line. She escorted us off to another building where the line was only about a dozen people. The feeling of hope at seeing only a few people in line ahead of us quickly diminished as we watched in horror as each individual was subsequently dismissed for not having proper documentation in order. It was like an episode of that 90’s trivia game show.

I mean, how could you possible think of getting a T.R.N. without first having evidence of your birth doctor’s credentials in triplicate?! What kind of second rate bureaucracy do you think this is? You are banished for your stupidity and insolence. 

Within the hour, our chance to prove our worthiness of owning a vehicle arrived, and we stepped up to the glass like Oliver Twist with application in hand. The woman on the other side nodded as she went through the paper work with a laser-like concentration. She was definitely looking for any chance to reject our attempt at obtaining a car. With a grunt of disdain, she initiated the application approval. I sighed with relief, and it seems like that’s all it took. “Oh no, no, no. You see here, you are applying for two TRNs, yes?” I felt a lump in my throat. What had we forgotten? I knew we should have brought along character witnesses and blood samples. “You see, he is not on a work visa, correct? Then he cannot apply for T.R.N. Are you married?” (Note: For the almost a decade, I have always confidently answered yes to this question, but it seems the lovely folks back in Tennessee would argue this point. It appears we might have started our family out of wedlock. My lawyer is looking into the matter).

“Yes, we are married.”

“Do you have proof?” I thought about holding up our eldest son, but I decided against it. This didn’t seem like the place that would appreciate my sense of humor. “Do you have a marriage certificate?” She repeated.

“Yes, but not with us.”

The slightest hint of a smile crept out of the corner of her mouth. It small, but it was there. Was this an opportunity for her to make a little extra money? I don’t know. I can’t read the situations where bribes are being requested yet.

“Come back when you have it. We can’t proceed until then.”

Silly Americans. You are the weakest link, goodbye.

And with that we walked out of the office, another unhappy non-customer. Our wedding certificate was in a stack of identification documents we were storing at Erin’s office which was located about a half-hour’s drive away. We didn’t want to lose another day coming back, so while our driver David took Erin to her office for a single piece of paper, the boys and I found a place for lunch.

Later that afternoon our second attempt at submitting the applications (this time with our marriage certificate in hand) was ultimately successful. As we were being fingerprinted (all ten digits in ink, not grease) and signing the application for the fifth time, we were told to come back on March 14th before noon. I wanted to ask what would happen if we came back a day early or after noon on the 14th, but I bit my tongue. Gift horses and all that. We thanked the woman for her help, and as I left I swear I noticed a head nod from her, one as if to say, “Well done, American. You have survived the first round, but it only becomes more difficult to get what you want from here…” Even the security guard seemed slightly impressed at our preparation, agility, and resilience. I felt his smile and look appreciated the fact that we had accomplished something without paying. Respect.

It is at this point I need to say that this, like with almost everything we do, was all Erin’s preparation and planning. I’m solid at the execution of plans, but she’s the mastermind behind it all. Buying a house? Enrolling a kid? Vacations? Grad school? Marathons? It’s all her foresight and groundwork. She’s the mitochondria of our living cell. Coming here was supposed to switch things up. In this world, I’m referred to as the “trailing spouse,” which means that I do not hold the work visa. Coming here and intentionally not working would allow me to assume the mastermind role and be the driver of the family for a few years. Erin has long supported my efforts in public education and coaching, and it is past time that she has the support at home to be able to thrive in her professional career. One catch though… because I do not have a work visa, I cannot get a bank account, I cannot purchase a car, sign a cell phone contract, or really do anything beyond look pretty and tell the boys to stop their mischief making. Erin needs to be the one to establish all the accounts and sign all the contracts because she’s the only one who has a work visa. But if she is setting up our financial and functional lives, she cannot also be at the office working which is our whole purpose for being here. Catch-22.

Like so many other places in this world, the “working spouse” in South Africa is still assumed to also be the head of the house. Traditionally this has been a man’s role. He is the worker so he has the name of the bank account and he adds his wife as an “auxiliary.” Seriously, that’s the word that is used. If he opens the cell phone contract because his job gives him credit, he can purchase and authorize an additional a line for his wife. This system is another example of a holdover from an earlier time. And like apartheid, it is one of control. Men have used their social and economic power to control the women in their life. I’m told by people who will openly answer my questions that women can and often do have bank accounts and cell phones in their own names now, but if (and when) women marry, accounts are transfered or opened in the man’s name. In fact, you should have seen the look our on personal banker’s face when we told her we wanted a joint account instead of a primary account holder with authorized user attached. She had never heard of such a thing. It seems that even in 2018, economic equality in marriage is still not as prevalent as I would like to think. Since our engagement Erin and I have shared a bank account. Our bills are our bills. Our paychecks are our paychecks. The lean years and the bountiful are ours together. I own her debt and she owns mine. We work together to budget our income regardless of where it comes from. It was one of our very first agreements as couple. I invest 100%. She invests 100%. It works for us. Without wanting to pass judgement, it seems to us that the idea of equally shared value and resources in relationships is as foreign as we are. The policies and regulations around goods and services like phones and cars reflect the attitudes that the traditional male breadwinners are still the more socially and economically valued partner over the supporting spouse. Which brings me to this quote and thought. I can’t wait to write more about the intensive labor practices I see women undertaking everyday. It is mind-blowing. But for now, just know that the inequality of the sexes in relationships is readily apparent, and yet very much accepted custom. This also raise questions for me. Do I say something when I see this inequality at work? Do I advocate? Do I criticize? What is my role here? Trailing-spouse? Feminist? Humanist? American? What does that even mean now?


(And as another aside, had Erin’s company purchased our cars upfront and then been reimbursed by us, all of these bureaucratic hurdles, bribery opportunities, and days out of the office could have been avoided. As it is, we continually remind ourselves that we are getting the full international experience by having to do the leg work on our own.)

So with our T.R.N. application submitted, we commenced car shopping in earnest last weekend by visiting a dozen dealerships with the hopes of finding both a reliable used commuter car and a used family vehicle which would seat seven for when guests visit. (You are coming to visit, right?) Very quickly Erin found a nice 2017 Hyundai with 15k miles on it, and after a test drive we made a deposit. We were told by the salesman that putting run-flat tires on car and installing smash-and grab protection on the windows would be no problem. It was a problem though. Little did he (and we) know that the only brands that are capable of having run flat tires are BMW, Mercedes, Mini, and Audi. For me, run-flat tires (those with reinforced sidewalls allowing you to drive 50 miles at 50mph) are essential. Erin’s commute is relatively easy and mostly on a very good toll roads. We intentionally picked our housing location based on the commute and our proximity to the international school. But even the best roads here can be littered with debris and the stuff that will literally fall off trucks. I know that “stuff that falls off of a truck” is usually a euphemism for stolen goods. However, in the last month I have seen more items fall from trucks than in my previous 22 years behind a wheel. I have seen mattresses, cans of paint, lumber, tires, and in one particularly dangerous yet spectacularly awesome explosive episode a couple boxes of long industrial florescent lights were thrown from the back of a truck. So it is a no-brainer that we will have run-flats on our car. It is a luxury, I understand, but this is the kind of peace of mind that we need if Erin is commuting early or late.

A “Bakkie” spills a load of textbooks on the R21 highway last fall. This is the road Erin will be commuting on and is the central road between the international airport and Pretoria. 

After learning about the run-flats being limited to these luxury vehicles, we forfeited our deposit on the Hyundai and moved on to shopping for used BMWs. Because of the price difference, we needed to look at older models with more miles, but I still feel like this is a decent trade-off as many German automobiles are designed to last much longer than their American counterparts. Meanwhile, I also started the search for the larger family vehicle. When we first learned of our placement here, I started dreaming of a manual all-terrain diesel Land Rover complete with benches, spare water tanks, and snorkel. They are everywhere in South Africa, and I knew the boys would love one as much as me.

The dream is actually a nightmare for long distance highway touring and travel. It’s loud, inefficient, and has a poorly heated/cooled cabin which can be miserable for passengers. But it looks so awesome!

On closer inspection however, they are some of the worst vehicles in terms of comfort for the kind of road trips and exploring we want to do. I know enough about myself and our habits to realize that a comfortable highway vehicle that safely and reliably gets is to and from the national parks is a smarter buy than the cool ride. Head over heart. I explored newer models like the Discovery, but couldn’t find one that was young enough and could fit in our budget. Yesterday I put down a deposit on a 2014 Audi Q7 with 68,000 miles on it. I think it will be a great vehicle for us, even if it isn’t the “Jurassic Park SUV” the boys wanted. Erin found an older automatic BMW Series 3 sedan with low-ish miles and a touch of power still left in the engine and made another deposit.

We now had vehicles and our T.R.N.s were ready, so yesterday we returned to the License Bureau in Centurion at opening only to find the following sign:

Even when you show up at your appointed time, the offices might be closed.

At this point we had to laugh. It seems that even when you do everything right, something will still hold up the process. We went and got a cup of coffee, and Erin moved her meetings back. The usual line was established when we returned and we joined in, upper lips and all. When we got to the window, the nice woman retrieved our application from the same file cabinet she has deposited it in two weeks previous. From my point of view, nothing had been done with it or to it, I’ve been wrong before though. She started to “process it” in front of us while yelling at the woman working the window next window. She was clearly upset that someone didn’t follow some protocol. I just hoped it wasn’t us. We watched as she unstapled our applications and removed our passport photos and restyled and filed the application written in black ink on the blue form. She printed two new pages and cut to fit our photos to the box on the new sheet before using a glue-stick to affix our photos. She asked for our signatures below the photos and then our left thumb print only. We complied. Taking a piece of packing tape, she covered the photo, signature, and thumb print and handed us our TRNs. And with that we were unceremoniously approved to buy and own cars by the Republic of South Africa.


I’m told that the next steps will involve the actual purchasing the cars, the registering of the vehicles, obtaining insurance, and having the cars pass a “road worthy” test. In terms of total time and resources used to get this point, I think we are looking at about 20-25 hours. I’m hoping that we can finish the process within the next week. We sold our Subaru’s in early February, and we have been paying for rental cars (a Ford Focus in Nashville, and a Hyundai Sonata and a Toyota Fortuner here) or using ride shares like Uber to get around. I’m ready to have a car again. An interesting note here is that the one item you don’t need to get in order to buy a car is a driver’s license. My Tennessee issued one will work just fine as long as it is valid. Can someone remind me to visit the DMV in Nashville when I return in May?

So has our experience been comical? Depressing? Absurd? All of the above? I don’t want to pass judgement on other cultures and customs and ways of functioning. The one I use to compare all of my experiences to falls well short of perfect most days, and often it struggles to even reach good enough. So when I’m witness to an exchange between people that just doesn’t sit right with me, it takes all I can to remember that “this too is water.” Awareness. Wonder. Patience.

Be good and keep in touch.

3 thoughts on “Week Four – Car Buying In South Africa”

  1. Loved reading about your trials and observations – truely an insightful read. Love you guys. Dad
    Ps the Audi isn’t such a bad choice, it’s just a big Forrester! And, yes the White Land Rover Defender in your pics would have been my first choice too! Looking forward to your next entry🦏


  2. Thank you for another adventure shared. In your adventures you are preparing two world citizens. Let my grateful heart say thank you from all of us.


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