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Open Features: Driven To Drink

...You'd think in this age of electronic wizardry that renewing a driving license wouldn't be a headache. Alas, migraine has struck with a vengeance. For I'm the holder of a Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) license with the word "Malawi" prominently displayed...

Mike Wood enters a bureaucratic nightmare.

Mike is the author of 'Warm Heart' - a novel about corruption, aid and treachery in a Southern African country. Copies can be ordered from the publisher at http://www.justdone.co.za/index.php

You'd think in this age of electronic wizardry that renewing a driving license wouldn't be a headache. Alas, migraine has struck with a vengeance. For I'm the holder of a Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) license with the word "Malawi" prominently displayed.

SADC was formed so that certain practices across fourteen countries in the region could be standardised and simplified. In this idealised figment of the imagination, you'd be able to use a Malawi license in SA without fear or retribution. Err, no. During several routine police checks, officers have scrutinised mine with more than a degree of puzzlement."Malawi," they exclaim, as if it were some far off constellation. "Why do you not have a South African license?"

"Well", says I patiently, "there is this thing called SADC ...."

Already the policeman looks glazed and has turned his attention to more comfortable ground - tyres and tax disc. "OK you can go. But get an SA license as soon as."

With the date on my Malawi document nearing expiry, I thought I'd better pre-empt any further difficulty and apply forthwith for the SA equivalent. What a relief it would be when that little piece of plastic was in my clutches. So off I trot to Knysna's Traffic Department (which, take note, parades the banner "Strives for Customer Care Excellence") and sit in the never ending queue, having filled in the requisite forms.

"Ahyee, no. You are needing a letter from your Embassy to confirm that you are entitled to drive."

Eh! "Doesn't my Malawi license tell you that?" This only evinced a chuckle. "Wait", I plead desperately, "Here's my UK license. That tells you I'm qualified to drive everything except an aeroplane."
"Ahyee no. We are still needing a letter."

Exasperated, I contacted the British High Commotion in Tshwane. "No problem Sir. That'll be R500 for the letter, and you'll need to send us your UK license (which will be made invalid) plus passport for identification
purposes."

FIVE HUNDRED WHAT? INVALID? Was I unreasonable expecting a High Commission to look after the interests of its citizens instead of a good bludgeoning and a bit of armed robbery to boot?

To hell with them, methinks. I'll ask the UK Licensing Agency (in the dark hole of Swansea) to write a letter confirming vehicles I'm entitled to drive. What an obvious circumvention! Within a week it had arrived. Hooray! So off again to the Traffic Department with my precious piece of script.

"We are still needing a letter from your Embassy."

SHRIEK! WHY? (I'm begging now). "Surely that can tell you no more than the DVLA document (the latter being the appropriate authority in any case)?"
Alas, there was no penetrating their armour.

The thought of paying R500 to a faceless British bureaucrat as the price of progress still irked. It then occurred to me I might bring an end to this nightmare by approaching the Malawi High Commission. Oh joy! I was soon the proud possessor of their (free) letter, confirming my Malawi SADC license credentials. With a strong sense of relief, I took it back to the Traffic Department to face another queue as long as your arm in the gleaming new Main Street offices.

There was much grumbling from the assembled masses. "Has anyone calculated the losses to our economy caused by all these wasted working hours?" asked one unhappy individual, as an official walked past, weighed down by half a ton of pending license applications.

At last I got to the front of the queue. But the smile was soon wiped off my face. "Ahhee. You see, although you are having a letter from those Malawians, we must check that it is genuine. We will call you in a few days." Have you ever heard such nonsense?
Nearly three weeks later (after pressing until my phone wires were red hot), I was instructed to return. Forewarned is forearmed. I reached the office early (7.35 am) and was greeted by a very friendly man. "You see, this letter you are having from the optician, telling us you have had an eye test, is out of date."

Surely not another hurdle?" But it is dated November 2007!"

"Exactly, it is out of date. We need a certificate which is no more than two weeks old." And I need a dose of propranolol.
"Is it usual for people to have eye tests every three months in South Africa?" I ask.

"Rules is rules" says the official, seemingly oblivious to the "Customer Service Excellence" epithet.

I thought I'd encountered he world's worst bureaucracy when I ventured to buy a bus ticket in New Delhi. Believe me, the division of labour here is doubly extended. Sparring with the Traffic Department is not for softies. Make sure you take along a gallon of water, a couple of months worth of reading, and a packet of tranquilisers!

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