South Africa


It’s a bumpy ride for Gauteng drivers with expired licences

There is now a huge backlog of people all trying to get their licences renewed at the same time, along with those whose licences are expiring now. (Photo: Gallo Images/Jacques Stander)

It is trite to say that the Covid-19 pandemic has placed intense stress on our systems of governance, government in general and the systems in place that are supposed to regulate our society.

From time to time certain problems arise that show how weak these systems were in the first place. Sometimes, these are not matters of life or death. Still, they are important because they expose major problems within our governance system.

Several days ago, I realised I had been struck by the 17th worst thing that can happen to you during a pandemic. My driver’s licence card was about to expire. In fact, as I write this now, it has indeed passed on. It is an ex-driver’s licence card.

Normally, this would be a problem, but not entirely insurmountable. One would take a day off work and stand in a queue. Certainly, that’s what I did this time exactly five years ago.

However, in Gauteng things have changed. It is no longer possible to do that.

I remember well the first time I heard the then Gauteng Transport MEC Ismail Vadi discussing the idea of an online booking system for driver’s licence renewals and tests. It made sense. You would book the date and time online, pitch up for your appointment, and maybe lose just two hours of your day, compared with the previous average of around six.

It has not worked out like that. 

Even when I first checked the system in January this year, it was simply not possible to book a slot. There were no “open” slots to be had. None in Randburg, none in Soweto, in Sandton, Midrand, anywhere. It seemed to be impossible to explain why this was so, but an open slot could not be found.

It didn’t seem to matter then. In January, the end of November was a whole pandemic away.

And that is what made things so much worse.

For the months of the hard lockdown the licensing centres were closed; no one could renew anything. Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula then extended the deadline for people to renew their licences to January. That extension, however, applies only to the people whose cards were due to expire between the end of March and the end of August this year.

It does not apply to people whose cards expired after August. It does not apply to thousands of people whose cards have expired since then.

And this is where the problem comes in. There is now a huge backlog of people all trying to get their licences renewed at the same time, along with those whose licences are expiring now.

All of this is now crammed into a system that didn’t work in the first place.

Strangely, it appears the authorities are very aware of the problem.

In an astonishing admission last week, Gauteng Transport MEC Jacob Mamabolo (who is also the acting health MEC in the province) essentially said the entire system was not working. He told Radio 702 that the process was a “nightmare” and that to get a licence would involve acts of bribery at every stage in the system.

Coming from the person with political authority over the testing centres  that are causing the problem, this is an immense concession.

So then, what does it mean for someone in this position?

First, it would mean that if you want to keep driving, you have to do so knowing that your driver’s licence card has expired, meaning that you are driving illegally.

But it turns out that you are not driving as illegally as you may think. 

Under the law, your driver’s licence does not actually expire. Your licence is in fact a legal recognition that you passed the drivers’ test, and as long as the licence itself is not withdrawn, it is valid almost into perpetuity.

The licence card that you have to show a police officer is not actually your licence – it is merely proof that you have a licence.

To sum it up, it is not your licence that has expired and cannot be renewed, but only the proof of your licence.

So then, what happens if you get stopped and fined, but can’t actually renew your licence card; your proof of licence?

If you drive to Mpumalanga or Free State, you can go and renew your driving licence card… you can go to any licensing centre, because it is a national competence.

Howard Dembovsky runs the Justice Project South Africa, an organisation that helps people deal with the machinery of licensing and fines.

In his view, the fact that you cannot get a licence card renewed in Gauteng at the moment is “a 100% defence”. In other words, you cannot be fined for not being able to regularise your situation. And it also cannot be claimed that you should stop driving either.

Of course, it might well depend on the magistrate that you face.

Dembovsky also makes another crucial point, which is that if you live in a province outside Gauteng, “I could walk into a [licence] centre and do it. But in Gauteng you cannot do it [because of the online booking system]. 

“If you drive to Mpumalanga or Free State, you can go and renew your driving licence card… you can go to any licensing centre, because it is a national competence.”

This gets to the heart of the problem.

Driver’s licences, and the cards, are managed by the national transport ministry. It is only the licensing centres that are run by the provinces.

So, if you live in Gauteng, you could simply wait until you have a business trip to Cape Town, then walk into a centre there. But, warns Dembovsky, that “means you would have to go back to collect it”, because it has to be collected in person.

But what does this mean for our “100% defence”? 

Could a prosecutor simply ask why you did not leave Gauteng to go to Mpumalanga or the Free State? No, says Dembovsky, “why should I be subject to the cost of going to another province?”

And that’s before you consider an equality argument; that a resident of one province can do something (walk into a licensing centre and get a new driver’s licence card) but a resident of another province cannot.

Of course, it is not entirely clear what happens if a Free State police officer stops a Gauteng driver on the N-1 near Brandfort. She may need some convincing of the issues.

But the bigger issue may in fact be insurance. It is easy to break the law, especially if you are only breaking it a little bit, but harder to face the risk of being in an accident and not being covered by your insurance company. The economic cost of that can be life-shattering.

Again, common sense must prevail. 

In a way it would appear that Mamabolo’s frank admission – that getting a new licence card is a ‘nightmare’ – is actually a call for help. 

Many years ago it was decided that an insurance company cannot reject a claim simply because your licence has expired. This is because, again, it is the proof of the licence that has expired, not the licence itself.

Yes, insurance companies may have bigger lawyers than you do, but it would appear that you would be covered in such a situation.

This issue raises some complex problems of governance. It demonstrates, once again, how weak systems simply fail as the result of a pandemic and a lockdown. 

Gauteng’s online “booking system” did not work properly before the pandemic and it has now fallen apart.

But this is not to the detriment of everyone. Someone seems to be making money from the situation.

Google the phrase “driver’s licence renewals” and you will meet with adverts for services who promise to make it happen for you. Somehow they are able to do it when you yourself are not.

Which may strengthen Mamabolo’s claim that there is bribery involved in every stage of the system.

In a way it would appear that Mamabolo’s frank admission – that getting a new licence card is a “nightmare” – is actually a call for help. 

He’s trying to put pressure on Mbalula to release the pressure on the system by extending the period that licence cards are valid for. It would appear that only he can do this. He might also know that an admission of this nature would be used by anyone facing a fine for driving around with an expired licence card.

But if there is no action, it runs the risk of yet another situation in which breaking the law becomes the law itself, in which people who consider themselves “law-abiding” become used to breaking the law on a regular basis. 

People who normally would ensure that they are paid up, have all the documents they need, who even have an e-tag – are simply unable to comply with the law in this case.

When this happens, respect for the law weakens. 

Children become used to their parents admitting to police officers they haven’t complied with the law. It also means that there will be no pressure to reform the system. 

It will just sputter along achieving nothing, and costing government money. 

The people who work in the licensing centres will still be paid, while people keep driving with expired licence cards. The potential for corruption will increase as some police officers will use an expired licence card as a bribe opportunity.

All of this can be avoided, though. 

With a stroke of his ministerial pen, Mbalula can extend the period that licence cards are valid for. Currently, it’s five years. 

This would also give Gauteng time to increase its capacity. If he does not, it shows that he is not concerned about a government system under his control that is completely failing. DM


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All Comments 4

  • Best as I can see there is indeed total indifference amongst the officials and goverment functionaries about this. They are entirely complacent about the shocking lack of service. Even in Cape Town it’s 5am in the queue to get your car licence renewed – resulting in a cost to the City of Cape Town of R144 million rand in lost citizen’s productivity in a year (my calculated estimate)

  • Informative article Stephen …. thanks.
    It also does not get any easier for the elderly, whether queuing, testing or simply understanding the situation. Anyway, I am off to Clarens to resolve my situation.

  • Thankyou, Stephen Grootes, for a very interesting and enlightening article; especially the part about a driver’s license never expiring, only the card which is proof of the driver’s licence.

    I still have my original driver’s license, issued in the 1960’s. Two in fact, one for light four-wheeled vehicles, and one for motorcycles. In the event of having to go to court I wonder if these would be considered as proof of having a driver’s license.

    At that time one’s driver’s license was for life. If my memory serves me correctly, even after ones’ driver’s license was affixed to a page in one’s ID book, the license was for life. It was not a requirement to renew it after a specified number of years. Renewal after five years became mandatory only after the card format was introduced.

    What about a first-time driver’s license, if the license card is only proof that one has a driver’s license, having passed the required tests? Who holds the actual license, and how does the licensee get it, or a notarised copy of it? It seems the laws here are very convoluted.

  • The problem with making it impossible to comply with the law is that lawlessness is encouraged. You look at your expired licence and all your upbringing makes a tight knot in your chest as you contemplate getting behind the wheel of your car without the magic date on that little piece of plastic. But, hey, you can’t renew it, so… well stuff it, I’ll drive! The sky doesn’t fall. Next time is easier. I’m a non-smoker married to cancer stick addict. As lockdown stretched and she ran out of fags, what to do? I refused to buy any on the black market, or transport them, for a month, then six weeks… but she got them. Double park, no, incredibly inconsiderate, I don’t drive like that. Then try to inch up a street where people have stopped at will, no worries, just put on the hazards, stop wherever. Traffic lights, one SHOULD stop, but hey – there’s the ” law doesn’t apply to me brigade” that sail through on red, no worries. Don’t hoot! God, you could be shot! Oh and if he drives into you because you were dumb enough to actually proceed on green, his insurance (if he has any, so minibus taxis excluded) will tell you about the 80/20 rule. His BMW is worth R800k, your old Jeep is worth R50k, the loss is R850k so, er, you need to accept the loss of your Jeep and pay the light jumper R170k!! There’s justice. I want to turn right, but there’s a queue in the right turn lane. Just turn right from whatever lane, leave the idiots to wait in line. Finished my cool drink, or takeaway, don’t want to dirty my car, no worries, turf it out the window. Fancy some money from the fiscus, help yourself – no worries, if anyone others to prosecute you the file can vanish. SORRY, this was about licences. There’s a tariff you pay to the police if you qualify – R200k I believe for an expired licence, cash, no worries. Then they won’t let you relicense your car because some bloke you sold a car to 5 years ago never transferred it and didn’t licence it. Oh well, I stood here for a month (OK, exaggeration, but you get it, n’est ce pas?), so bugger it, I’ll drive it unlicensed. Tariff for an unlicensed car is I understand R500, but still cheaper than spending the day fruitlessly standing in lines trying to pretend its right.

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