South Africa’s driving licence renewal process is a debacle.
It certainly was not working efficiently before the Covid-19 pandemic – and now it has become an absolute nightmare for any motorist who needs to renew their driving licence or obtain other vehicle-related documentation.
The problems at the Driving Licence Test Centres (DLTCs) have been well ventilated by a number of organisations.
These problems include an online booking system in Gauteng that simply does not work – except for some driving schools; long queues and delays; a shortage of staff at DLTCs, resulting in about 30% of processing booths and cashier counters remaining unmanned; computers and eye testing machines not working; and DLTCs closing at unscheduled times.
Since the driving licence credit card was first introduced many years ago, the process has hardly improved.
Many years ago, I was among the first motorists required to convert the driving licence in my identity document to the new credit card driving licence because of the month of my birth.
It then took five hours standing in a long queue at the Waltloo DLTC in Pretoria to complete the application and a further five hours, and similar long queues, to collect it.
To say it was frustrating is an understatement. It is similarly frustrating now.
My driving licence expired during the hard lockdown in 2020. I attempted twice after the relaxation of the lockdown regulations to renew my driving licence at the Centurion DLTC but was on both occasions turned away – despite the dispensation granted to people over the age of 60 that allows them to simply walk into DLTCs on a Wednesday without a booking.
It was third time lucky last Wednesday, but it still took four hours and 45 minutes to complete the process at the Centurion DLTC, which includes waiting for an hour-and-a-half in the queue for the centre to open.
The Road Traffic Management Corporation (RTMC) has acknowledged there is a backlog of 500 000 licences, but the Centurion DLTC still opened only at 8am.
DLTCs in the Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal have reportedly extended their operating times in an attempt to address the backlog.
In addition, people are informed via a flimsy notice printed on a piece of A4 paper that is sticky-taped to a metal beam and the front door that the Centurion DLTC closes on Wednesday at either 12 noon or 1pm – depending on which notice you read – for “deep cleaning and sanitation”. This is obviously related to the Covid-19 pandemic.
A 6.30am arrival at the Centurion DLTC secured me 26th place in the driving licence renewal queue, the length of which had swelled to more than 100 people by the time the centre opened at 8am.
Centurion DLTC officials must be complimented for walking down the queue once the centre opened and checking everyone’s documentation to ensure anyone not 60 or older had a booking.
This prevented some people from unnecessarily wasting many hours waiting in the queue when their applications would not have been processed.
The Centurion DLTC was able to process only 10 driving licence renewals each hour. If all the country’s DLTC operate at the same level, it’s difficult to imagine the backlog ever being eliminated.
The reason for the slow processing rate was clear once you were eventually permitted to enter the centre.
Only three of the five driving licence renewal booths were manned and processing applications. While waiting to be served, DLTC officials ushered at least two people who had not been in the queue into processing booths.
It is unclear why these people were allowed to queue-jump.
Despite DLTCs having eye test equipment, it appears it is now a requirement that motorists have an eye test certificate from an optician.
Officials walked down the queue and checked that prospective applicants had such a certificate and a printed paper notice outside each booth in the centre listed an eye test certificate as one of the documents required for their applications to be processed.
People are required to pay for their application to complete the process. Once again, not all the cashier booths were staffed and operational, resulting in relatively long queues.
From this experience, it is clear that the entire vehicle registration, licencing and driver testing system requires a complete overhaul because it is inefficient and there is more than sufficient anecdotal evidence to suggest it is possibly corrupt.
The Department of Transport should be making it easy for people to comply with their legal obligations and could possibly learn from the Department of Home Affairs initiative whereby it established passports and identity document applications and renewal services inside certain banks.
This initiative has resulted in an extremely efficient process, with a booking system that works and where people are informed when their passport or identity document is ready for collection.
This is a far cry from how the DLTCs operate. Another flimsy, printed notice stuck to the door of the Centurion DLTC informs motorists that it does not send out a SMS to inform people when their driving licence is ready for collection. It merely advises people to revisit the DLTC in six to eight weeks. If their driving licence is not ready then, I suppose it is just tough luck.
The Automobile Association (AA) and the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (Outa) have warned that the grossly inefficient driving licence renewal system will force many people to break the law because, through no fault of their own, they have no choice.
Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula confirmed in May this year that his department is looking at launching and rolling out a new driving licence card before the end of this year and implementing a bouquet of measures to improve the service to the public .
Mbalula added that his department wants to “kill the queues at DLTCs and is also working on undermining the corruption involved in the booking of DLTC slots, especially in Gauteng, to ensure that getting a driver’s licence does not become a cumbersome and stressful journey and to make it accessible”.
Such improvements are long overdue and are welcome.
However, it does not help any of the thousands of motorists who have not yet managed to renew their driving licence.
In light of the serious and widespread problems at DLTCs, the transport minister must now seriously consider a further extension to the deadline for people to renew their expired driving licences – and possibly also extend the validity period of licences from five to 10 years.