Half of all driving licences issued between 1998 and 2003 were invalid. That was the conclusion of Willie Hofmeyr, the past head of the Special Investigations Unit. The SIU spent years poking around in dusty file rooms of municipal testing stations trying to uncover the truth behind licensing fraud and corruption in South Africa, and what they found wasn't pretty.
Perhaps the easiest way to understand the problem – and how it affects you as a motorist - is to imagine yourself as an employer, trying to recruit a bakkie driver. In your innocence, you place 'help wanted' adverts and settle on a single applicant who passes the credit checks, doesn't have a criminal record – and has a driving licence. Or does he? As the Automobile Association, we wish we didn't have to ask that question, but one cannot deny realities.
The question leads inevitably to the fact that driving licences have become commoditised in South Africa. A licence is no longer merely an aid to mobility or the first step on the ladder for those wanting to be professional hauliers. No, for many it is a ticket to a livelihood, which makes it very valuable indeed. Someone may have no education and limited literacy and numeracy, but if they have a driving licence they are employable, sometimes at quite a good salary.
The country relies on systemic checks and balances to filter out bogus licences, but these checks have become dysfunctional in many cases. The government-enforced standard for driving instructors is a mere shadow of what it used to be, and a newspaper's recent survey in Durban revealed that seven out of ten driving schools it approached were willing to assist applicants who wanted to buy a licence.
There are also examiners who, for a fee, are prepared to pass candidates who should have failed the driving test. And then there is E-Natis, which should be an unimpeachable source of data on vehicles and drivers. Instead, it has been sullied by licensing corruption, meaning that a licence registered as 'valid' on E-Natis may be one of those bought or forged ones.
Insurance estimates from the late 1980s and early 1990s were that 20% to 25% of drivers on South African roads didn't have a valid licence. That figure is likely to have grown and it's not inconceivable that by now, four out of every ten drivers coming towards you on the road isn't correctly licensed. But the more alarming question is the one about those 'valid' licences registered on E-Natis which are actually fake. What if they are, say, 30% of the total? That is the truly frightening part of being a modern road user, because one expects a licence card to represent a certain standard while in many cases it no longer does. Worse, not even someone with access to E-Natis can tell the difference between the two - for that, one would have to go back to the source documentation for the test, and even that might be a dead end if a corrupt examiner made sure the paperwork looked convincing.
So you hire your bakkie driver with his 'valid' licence and, after a series of minor bumps and bangs and numerous complaints from the public, you finally send him for a driving assessment which reveals, to your horror, that he can barely change gears or steer properly. But he has a 'valid' licence. A person who bribes an examiner for a licence would likely think nothing of trying to bribe a traffic officer out of issuing a ticket too. That is the problem with licensing corruption - it rots the whole fabric of road safety, not just the licensing system. The result is waves of lawless roadhogs, and while a properly-licensed driver might have some chance of avoiding the carnage, the same can't be said of vulnerable road users like pedestrians or cyclists.
The rise of irregular licences began in the late 1990s and it's probably not a coincidence that road death rates doubled from 1998 to 2006. As things currently stand, licensing corruption is so widespread that it could be said to have evolved from a strictly road safety issue into a social phenomenon of job creation, a problem which cannot be reversed without substantial economic growth and an improvement in employment prospects. Certainly there is no sign of any political will to get matters under control. Under such conditions, the AA 's view is that the licensing system will remain hospitable to corrupt officials who extort money from people desperate to make themselves employable.