Rebuilding Foundations

An exploration of international development work in Africa

Routine Traffic Stop

This morning I was pulled over in a routine traffic check on my way to work.  About thirty cops littered the road with trucks and computers and lots and lots of traffic cones.

My first thought was, “Ag man, is this why traffic is so slow!”

My second thought was, “Oh no.”

Last year’s MHA intern was frequently pulled over by the police.  She told me it was because she’s Asian and hence an obvious foreigner.  After hearing her words, I wondered, “How Asian do I look?  Will my brown hair protect me while driving?  They can’t get that close a look as I drive past, right?”

I considered buying a blonde wig before moving here.  But the thought was just too ridiculous.  Imagine saying to my passengers, “Wait a moment.  I have to put on my driving wig.”

She warned me, “They’re looking for bribes.  Don’t ever give more than R50 ($6).  Try R20 ($2).  But I never gave a bribe on principle.  They’ll yell at you and threaten you with fines or even taking you to jail – but don’t be afraid to yell and lie back.  Pretend you’re visiting a government official or something.”

Oh no.  I am not
   a)      Good at yelling
   b)      Good at lying

Today, though, I did not have to do either.  The cop who pulled me over asked for my ID.  I gave him my Canadian drivers license and my international drivers license.  He asked for my Traffic Registration.

“What’s that?” I asked as looked in the glove compartment.

“No, you don’t have it,” He said as he eyed the Bible (my company is run by Afrikaans), vehicle insurance, and other papers that I pulled out.

“What is it?  What exactly is the form?” I asked.

“It proves that you’ve paid all your fines,” he answered.

I looked around.  The road stop included a couple trucks with computers in the back that police officers were using.  Isn’t that why I have a license plate?  So they can look up that kind of information on their databases?

Instead of arguing further, I phoned the MHA director in charge of my vehicle.  I asked him about the Traffic Registration Form but he had never heard of it.  I passed the phone to the police officer and they discussed it.

After hanging up, the police officer asked me for my ID.

“I gave it to you.”  He still had both my drivers licenses in his hand.

“No.  Your foreign ID document.”

“You mean my passport?” I asked.

He nodded.

“I work in Hillbrow.  I don’t carry my passport around with me.” I said.

He looked at me.  I looked at him.  So far during the interaction I’d been polite and calm.  Also somewhat dumb and clueless.  But I had also been firm.  I hoped he could tell I wasn’t going to back down easily.

I guess he did.  He handed me back my ID and waved me on.


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