Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Comprehensive Guide to Driving in Cape Town and South Africa.

This comprehensive guide to driving in South Africa is from a foreigner’s perspective (American) and highlights some of the differences in cars, driving habits, and road conditions in Cape Town and greater South Africa. Arrive Alive is a wonderful resource for checking road conditions and learning about new construction projects.

I really enjoy driving, and care about having and safe and efficient trip. I’ve tried to touch on many topics, and plan to continuously update it (date stamped at the bottom) as I learn more about the driving here. 
If you have any comments, observations or questions about driving in the amazing country, please comment or e-mail me!

  • There are many types of cars here. Some of the most common are Mercedes (“Mercs”), BMW, Toyota, Nissan, Honda, Hyundai, Volkswagen, Audi, Peugeot, Megane, Tata, Citroen, Fiat, Smart Car, Peugeot, Opel.
  • There are trucks, “bakkies”, and large box trucks as well.
  • Motorcycles and Scooters/Mo-Peds are very common as well.
  • There are vehicles suited for off-roading and safaris such as Land Rover Defenders, and Toyota Land Cruisers.
I have NO clue what this is!
  •  There are supercars like Lamborghinis, Maserati’s, and luxury cars like Bentleys and Aston Martins.
  • Every vehicle has to pass a road- worthy vehicle inspection every few years, so they generally are in good condition. Of course, cars can fall apart after the inspections.

Buying a Vehicle
  • The most obvious way to buy a car is either at a new or used car dealership. However, there are also vehicles to be found on Gumtree (South Africa’s version of Craigslist).
  • Vehicles, new AND used are VERY overpriced. For example, the cost of an entry-level Toyota Tacoma is $16,000 dollars in the USA, and here the equivalent entry-level Toyota Hillux is 179,000 Rand (approximately $22,000 depending on the current exchange rate). Anf you wouldn’t even get the same features, such as there would not be an airbag, and a “luxury” item would be a digital clock.
  • Gumtree is the best place to find a used car that is affordable and sold by a private seller.
  • As a foreigner buying a car, it is recommended that if it is a private sale, you both go to the office to transfer ownership and registration. This link provides a little more information.

Obtaining a License
  • As an expat, what I’ve figured out from conflicting web sites, is that you don’t need to get a South African license if you have a visa (such as a 3-year visa). Once you gain permanent residency, then you have six months to a year to obtain your South African driver’s license. Here is one woman’s experience with this.
  • From what people have told me, you should plan to get there early (some people show up at 6 a.m. to queue in line) and stay there several hours, up to all day. They then send the paperwork to Pretoria, they give you a temporary one, and you will get your real license several weeks from then. You will have to go back, wait in line, and get it.
  • From what I’ve read here and elsewhere, all you have to do is turn in your American license and they will give you a South African one, without having to take the driving test. At this time you must also turn in paperwork from your Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) stating that your license in in good standing and that you don’t owe money to them.
  • It has been suggested to me by other expats that if you will still travel often to the USA,  get a second driver’s license before you leave so that when you turn your American one in for a South African one, you’ll still have an American one. Please know that this is NOT LEGITIMATE because the American address on the license will not be accurate, and generally states require you to update your address on the license, so don’t quote me!!!
  • DO NOT listen to websites that state that you need a letter from the consulate regarding your driving record because they do not have access to your driving record. You must contact your DMV directly. I know this because we called the American consulate here and they informed us that they have never provided this service and told us that the web site is misinformed (see the link above for the correct information).
  • The South African driving test is one of the hardest around. For example, if you are driving a standard transmission, you have to be able to accelerate from a stopped position on an incline without rolling backwards. This is very tough for most people.
  • International Driver’s Licenses are required if you want to have car insurance on your vehicle. If you have a license in English (such as an American driver’s license) is not necessary if you are borrowing a friend’s car, etc. It’s easiest to get one before you move, but if you don’t, you can order one from the USA while in SA, it’s just more work.

Driving in Town and in the Country
  • South Africans drive on the left-hand side, as they do in England. This may seem like a huge challenge, however you can get used to it fairly quickly (a few weeks). I’d recommend having a passenger ride and pay attention so that they can remind you to get out of incoming traffic and get back on the left side! Pretty soon, it will feel like second nature.
  • The street signs are fairly clear and similar to the USA’s, but make sure to check out this web site that shows all the street signs in South Africa.
  • The street signs are predominately placed on the other side of the intersections, not before an intersection, as in the USA. If you’re not careful, you’ll miss your turn off and then see the sign for it afterwards. This got us lost many times when we were first here.
See how the sign is on the other side of the intersection?
  • The street names often change when they enter another suburb/town within Cape Town. For example, Main Road also is Victoria Road and Sir Lowry Road. Also, roads are often interchangeably displayed in English and Afrikaans (Example: Cape Town and Kaapstad).
  • The traffic lights are called “robots” here. So if you ask for directions and hear “turn left at the robot,” it means turn at the next intersection with a traffic light.
  • The police do not stop people for traffic violations, that is the job of Traffic Services. They are rarely seen, so we generally don’t worry about getting caught for stupid mistakes or speeding.
This is a common sight here.
  • There are traffic cameras for speed enforcement at certain locations around Cape Town, but not that many. On speed limit signs, there are often pictures of a camera, however, that doesn’t mean that there’s actually a camera there.
The tall yellow pole with a box is a camera.
  • Beware of pedestrians at all times. They never use the cross walks or wait for the crossing lights. They will walk right in front of you and often stand on the yellow lines in the median if there is traffic.
  • There are street vendors that will sell during red lights and  will walk between cars and dart in front of you to get to the side walk when the light changes.
Three street vendors.
  • Drivers are fairly impatient, and because there are often no turning lanes, people will drive around you, pass you in the incoming traffic lane, and get back into the lane in front of the turning car. I find this happens a lot.
  • Also, when you are trying to turn from a side street onto a busy street and you are hesitating too long, people will go around to your left and turn right in front of you, cutting you off.
  • Motorcyclists and Scooter riders will often ride in-between two lanes to pass you. I’ve never seen one side-swiped, but I expect to soon- they take such risks.
Motorcyclist passing between two vehicles.
  • Beware of the mini-bus taxis! They drive like maniacs and will stop anywhere to let people out or pick them up. You often have to maneuver around them to move ahead.
Usually mini-bus taxis are white, but this one is pink. Isn't it cute?
  • Honking is prevalent, but only for the mini-bus taxis. They honk to attract the attention of potential passerby. They might also whistle at you to get your attention (no, not because you’re sexy!) If you are driving and honk at a car that “cut you off” they often honk right back at you!
  • When you do something nice, like let someone into your lane, they often will “thank you” by flashing their hazard lights a couple times. It’s nice to see.
  • Out of the city, if a car is running very slowly, they will often pull to the left shoulder, continue driving, but give you enough space to pass. It’s kind of nice at times.
The blue car has pulled to the side so that the truck can pass.

  • Gas prices have been rising over the last year (as it has been in most parts of the world). I’ve seen it go from R8 to over R11 per liter in the last year.

  • Parking is at a premium in the city, so it will be difficult to find at times. Parking garages are often used.
  • People also tend to drive over the curb and straddle it so that they do not take as much space up on the narrow streets.
  • Car guards: They are people who are trying to make money by watching your car. They expect payment of at least R5, but they won’t demand it. But if you park somewhere regularly and routinely don’t pay them, your car might not be “guarded”. I always make sure I have a few coins on me or hidden in the car.

Break-ins and Theft
  • Car owners that leave items in plain view are targeted. Most people leave things in the trunk/”boot” of the car. I heard that a car was broken into in Woodstock, Cape Town and all that was taken were a pair of sunglasses and the charger and the holder for a GPS unit. So take things with you or hide them out of sight!
  • Car Alarms are very important. If you can park behind a security fence or with guards, you might be a little better off.
  • I hear it’s just a matter of time before it happens to me…!

Road Conditions
  • I find the road conditions are fairly good.
  • Pot holes are patched in a few weeks’ time.
  • However, there is debris on the roads quite often.
  • There are always people walking on the side of the freeways, and will run across four or five lanes to get to the other side.
  • Having a good car insurance that can come to your rescue if you get a flat or run out of gas is important to have. They can even send and armed guard out to protect you if you need it.
  • There are often pick-up trucks that are fitted to be tow-trucks that lie in wait on the sides of the freeways. They might help in a pinch, but DO know that your insurance will often require you to use one of their tow-truck providers!
  • Road construction seems to take a LONG time to be completed. For example, the same part of the M5 in Cape Town has been under construction for over a year!
  • On-ramps and off-ramps are often VERY short, so be prepared to brake quickly to accommodate traffic.

Last updated on: 04/04/12


A Daft Scots Lass said...

a great article from another perspective. Very interesting.

Sami said...

I remember when we lived in Johannesburg, a German friend came to visit and not used to the signs and "robots" on the other side of the intersection,he actually stopped in front of the traffic light right in the middle of the intersection!
Oh those mini bus taxis, they can be a pain in the roads!

ruthsplace said...

I lived for 6 years in South Africa and never got a South African license - we were on two consecutive three year work visas.

It was never a problem even when pulled over by police for random car searches that we had Australian licenses.

I loved your post, it made me nostalgic for CT.

Cami said...

That pink minibus is kind of cute!
Great advice :)

I got the earrings and OH MY they are GORGEOUS!! I can't wait to wear them and send a photo!! THANK YOU!!! <3
(Loved all the cool stamps, too!!) ox

Blairadise said...

Love your post. Lucky for you the pot holes get fixed down there. Some of our main roads in Pretoria could almost be considered dirt roads for all the holes and gravel.

Miss E said...

I loved how easy it was to drive in Cape town, granted we got lost a couple of times, but we could always find our way without too much hassle. They drive much faster down there though, guess it's coz of the numerous high ways - something we only wish for here.

Vanisha @ Vanishas Life In...Australia said...

I don't drive - as in can't and don't! But I'm curious to know what the vehicle in the first picture is. In Fiji we have mini-bus taxis type things as well and we only have one pink taxi which I've been trying to get a ride in!

Anonymous said...

holy smokes...ill stick with public transportation!!!!

Nikki said...

I miss driving in South Africa and I miss people moving over to the side so you can over take. I get really frustrating sitting behind someone going slowly. Every well written!!