License and Registration, Please

By now you probably know the story about how complicated it was to buy our car. Thwarted wire transfers, bad account numbers, the whole works. Well, now there’s a new story: the one about getting the car licensed and registered. It’s a long story, but it’s one that will hopefully help you appreciate the differences in how things are done here, to say the least. It is certainly a story that will be with us forever.

Attempt #1

The original owner of the car, wonderful woman that she is, went to the trouble of getting all the paperwork we needed to transfer the title and registration into our names. There are little shops around town that process this paperwork, and so on a recent afternoon, Jenny and I drove to one near Menlyn Mall to get ‘er done.

Within seconds of speaking with an agent, however, it was clear that it would not be an easy task. Before we could register the car, we needed to obtain something called a Traffic Register Number, or TRN. Basically, the government needed to put our ID details into their system before we could register a vehicle. Even though we are allowed to drive on our valid Illinois driver’s licenses, we needed to be represented in their licensing system.

For this, we were told we would need to go to someplace called the “Waltloo Traffic Department in Silverton.” She may as well have told us to drive to the moon.

She handed us a TRN application form and a long document checklist. We decided that it was another battle for another day.

Attempt #2

In preparation for our second attempt, we gathered every document indicated on the checklist, plus any and all others we could possibly think of. We had the university draft new letters proving our residence, made copies of IDs and had everything notarized by a Commissioner of Oath. We were ready.

The Waltloo Traffic Department is a bit of a hike from where we live. You drive out on the N4 to Watermeyer to Waltloo to Petroleum Street, then through a gate teeming with young, entrepreneurial men waving ID photos and other documents at you as if to say, “Don’t be stupid! Stop here to get your photos! Don’t go in there unless you have photos from me!” Convincing as they were, we drove past them, parked, found the door with TRN information and waited in line.

It was about 2:00 when we arrived, and we had been in the queue for about 40 minutes when a man stepped out of the door, waved his arms high like an airport ramp marshaller, then lower like an umpire signaling a runner “SAFE!”

“OK, that’s it!” he said loudly. “Try again tomorrow. We are closed.”

We, along with the twenty or so others still in line, stood bewildered for a moment before finally conceding defeat and trudging back to our cars. “This is ridiculous,” Jenny said, more than once.

Attempt #3

Early the next morning, we drove back out on the N4 to Watermeyer to Waltloo to Petroleum Street, turning left past all the men waving ID photos and on down to the Traffic Department buildings. We parked and went into the shelter where the line forms, and waited.

The Queue at Waltloo

A man in line ahead of us suggested that maybe we could just go upstairs to one of the counters, as most other people in line are there for “more complicated” issues. Following his advice, I stepped inside to speak with the uniformed man behind the desk who, like a bouncer behind a velvet rope, seemed to have the power to determine who entered and when. There was another, younger man, also in uniform, sitting on the opposite side of the desk. They were both doing their very best to not notice me.

Finally, I caught the attention of the bouncer and showed him our TRN forms. He shook his head. “You must go back out and queue on the left,” he said, gesturing as he spoke. I looked back at the line, where Jenny was holding our spot. There was very clearly only one queue. No Right Queue, no Left Queue. Just a queue. It was a single, unified queue that could have been a character in then-Senator Obama’s 2004 Democratic National Convention speech. Perhaps it was a Purple Queue. Anyway, I went back out.

Not two minutes later, a young woman not in a uniform stepped out and started asking people what they were there for. She reached us, we showed her the TRN forms, she gave us a number on a tiny slip of paper and motioned us to go upstairs to one of the counters. OK…so that’s how that works.

Upstairs, we were assigned to Counter 2. There were two people already waiting at Counter 2, so we stood on line for a bit longer. Once our turn came, it was like being at the DMV in Chicago: a surly woman with no patience asking stern questions about what we wanted and whether we had all of our paperwork.

Working our way through the document checklist, we handed over copies of passports, visas, drivers licenses, proof of address, proof of sale, etc., etc. Then she asked for the original registration certificate, which we had from the previous owner, as well as a copy of the registration certificate. That, we didn’t have.

“You need a copy of this,” she barked.

“OK, we don’t have that right now,” we sheepishly replied.

“There is a hut under the tree outside,” she said. “Go out and make a copy.”


Under a tree just outside the main building was a small structure with an architectural style that might be described as “Mid-20th Century Outhouse.” We noticed it the first time we drove in. A sign next to the building says “ID PHOTO’S” so we assumed it was just a photo booth of some sort, perhaps where the entrepreneurs did business with the unprepared. It did not seem at all official. But, as we are learning, this place is full of surprises.

I decided to go out to the “hut” while Jenny waited at the counter. When I got there, there were two people ahead of me waiting for ID photos. What I didn’t immediately notice was the white guy on his knees just on the other side of the little building. He had smudgy black toner all over his hands, wrists and forearms. Next to him, on the ground, was an early model photocopier tipped up on its side. On the ground. Outside. On the ground.

This, uhhh, vision must have caused me to space out for a second because the next thing I knew there was a woman in front of me in the queue. Either I was invisible for that moment (and, if so I must learn to harness such a power), or she simply jumped the line. She did her best to not notice me. There seemed to be a lot of that going around.

One’s position in line didn’t matter much, as it turned out. After a couple of minutes, another, larger white guy popped out of the hut to announce, in Afrikaans, that the copier was kaput. Whatever he said next caused everyone else in line to scatter like cockroaches in the kitchen light, each of them scuttling to their cars and speeding towards the exit.

“Um, what’s the deal?” I asked the big guy. “Where is everybody going?”

“To the garage,” he said. “On the corner.”

This, I deciphered, was the gas station on the corner of Petroleum and Waltloo. Apparently, they had a copy machine.

Like an older, slower cockroach, I made my way to our car and on to the gas station.

Jenny was, in the meantime, being harangued by the DMV lady, who wondered where I could possibly be with that photocopy. It just shouldn’t take this long!

Add to this the brief skirmish that broke out in the downstairs section between a customer and an employee over money.

“Why did you take my money if you can’t give me what I need?!”


“I don’t understand wh–“


[And then the employee just walked away.]

At the gas station, I made my photocopy and bought myself a juice box. All that confusion left me parched. Soon, though, I got myself back onto Petroleum Street and down through the gates of Hell the DMV. Upstairs, I found a very shell-shocked Jenny eagerly awaiting my return. Or, at least the arrival of the photocopy.

We gave the copy to Ms. Phlegyas and she began to furiously staple papers together. She handed us back a stack of documents and said, “You will come back on the 11th with plus or minus R300.”

Not so bad, we thought. To come back in just a few days to get our TRN and possibly even register the vehicle seemed amazingly fast, given that some signs in the building warned that the process could take over a month.

Until the 11th!

Attempt #4

On the 11th, we woke early in an attempt to beat the crowds. First, though, we stopped at a pet store to have Indie’s nails trimmed. Except, she wasn’t having it. I haven’t seen such a growly, snippy dog since…well, there was that one time.

Again, we drove out on the N4 to Watermeyer to Waltloo to Petroleum Street, and managed to reach the DMV by 9:00. Jenny got in line while Indie and I waited near the car. In about half an hour, or maybe 40 minutes, Jenny walked over to us, looking less than pleased.

Apparently, as she was standing in line, an employee came out and noticed her forms.

“Oh, you are here to collect?”

“Yes,” Jenny said.

“Yes,” the employee said. “The manager has left with all of that stuff. You will come back tomorrow.”

Wait, what? You tell us to come back on the 11th, we come back on the 11th. On the 11th, you tell us “the manager has left with all of that stuff.” What?! All what stuff? The stuff you told us to come for on the 11th? As in, today the 11th?

Right. OK.

This place is full of surprises.

Attempt #5

Today, Friday the 12th (whew, that was close) was another early start as we once again, say it with me, drove out on the N4 to Watermeyer to Waltloo to Petroleum Street.

The place was packed! Nearly every parking space was taken and there were several, giant, orange buses in an adjacent lot. Uh-oh, we thought. Fortunately, though, we were only in line for about 15 minutes when we were sent inside and upstairs to Counter 3.

At Counter 3, a woman took our paperwork and disappeared down a back set of stairs. A few minutes later, she returned, handed back our paperwork and said, “Go stand in that queue. The woman at Counter 2 will do this.” So, that’s what we did. We stood in the queue.

As we were standing there we noticed another young couple that we had earlier pegged as fellow foreigners. It wasn’t until we finally got to the counters that my ører pricked up at the sound of den Danske sprog – they were speaking Danish. He, it turns out, works for the Danish Embassy and she for a think tank; both travelling on diplomatic passports.

Like us, they had made multiple trips out to Petroleum Street, but their stories trumped ours, hands down. First off, they have been trying to get a TRN for the better part of a year. She needs it before she can apply for a driver’s license. On one visit, they were told to go to the traffic office in Centurion, a suburb between Pretoria and Johannesburg, only to be told in Centurion to go back to Waltloo. On another, they were given the address of yet another office, only to discover that the address was that of a graveyard.

In time, we were standing at Counter 2 waiting for our paperwork to be processed as they were at the window to Counter 3 and overheard the following exchange:

Employee: “What are you here for, again?”

Danish woman: “I was told that I need a TRN to apply for a Learner’s License.”

Employee: “Well, that is if you qualify for one.”

Danish woman: “No Danish diplomat has ever been refused…”

Employee: “Yes, well, we had a meeting yesterday and some rules have changed.”

Can the rules possibly change that fast? Are South African meetings so productive that an action item yesterday becomes a new provincial or national policy today? Was the meeting about Danish diplomats in particular? Did the meeting start out as a reminder about breakroom etiquette and end up as an overhaul of the entire South African vehicle licensing system? So many questions…

In the meantime, the woman processing our paperwork at Counter 2 had returned and things were looking good. She was cutting and pasting (in the old school way) Jenny’s ID photo onto an official document. Jenny signed the form, paid R276 and, CAN YOU BELIEVE IT?, we not only had our TRN, but the complete vehicle registration documentation, as well!


It only took five tries to become street legal.

At least we didn’t end up in a graveyard.


5 thoughts on “License and Registration, Please

  1. I have CA DMV stories that may match this saga, minus the heat and out house looking building…and a growling dog…

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