Undoubtedly one of the biggest hassles an expat will endure is buying a car in a foreign country. My company gave me a rental car for 3 months and nearing end of month two, I really had to get my shit together and go car hunting. From a person that’s lived in the big city all my life, I’ve actually never owned a car before and I loved it that way. I’d absolutely loved being able to walk and take mass transportation everywhere that having to finally drive was a sad day. So what most people have done back in their home countries, I’m doing the car buying, car financing, insurance, etc. in a foreign country! South Africa is a country where you have to drive, no questions about it. I didn’t want to buy a car at first, but within two days of living in the country, and as much as I hate having to drive, I knew that a car has to be done. Here are my experiences with this monumental occasion (and what I bought)!
Is there public transportation in Joburg?
Short answer, yes. Long answer? Hell no. Joburg is an enormously spaced out city. I was told my some locals that they made the city so large and spread out back in the days because they wanted to make it difficult for the blacks living in Soweto to easily reach areas like Sandton and Bryanston since a car is very expensive. This certainly seems true as it takes forever to get anywhere in the city. As for transportation, there exists a few options that I will talk about in detail so you can realize that it’s time to forget any thought of not buying a car here.
The Gautrain: Initially built for the World Cup in 2010, this is about as close to mass transportation as it gets here. It is an over ground train that really serves as more of a shuttle service to important areas of the city than a viable mass transportation system. It only makes about five stops BUT, one of them is OR Tambo International airport. It is incredibly convenient to get to the airport using the Gautrain. In fact, from Sandton, it is just a 15 min ride costing about 100R. It also makes stops in central locations like Rosebank, Midrand, Centurion, and Pretoria. The question becomes, how do you get around after you’ve been dropped off? There is a Gautrain bus shuttle service that will take you to the most central areas of the town but anything further away, you’re on your own.
- The Public Buses: Well I’ve been used to taking buses all my life and I actually looked into the bus schedules and routes when I first arrived. What a waste of time. There’s supposedly 100 bus routes or so but again, this city is so damn spread out there could be 1000 and it still wouldn’t be enough. Most of the bus service centers around Johannesburg CBD, which is not where I live. As sad as it is, Sandton is a very upscale suburb with plenty of people with plenty of money, and therefore will drive long before they even think about taking the bus. I haven’t take one of these buses so I can’t attest to this but I met a guy at a bar that lived around Joburg CBD and asked him does he ever take the bus. He immediately replies with a “Are you joking? I value my life”. So I’m not going to assume anything, but I’d reckon most of my friends would utter a similar response.
The “Taxis”: Ok this sounds a little racist, probably is, but that is actually what they are called. They are these old beat up vans that transport 10-20, well, black people. They are meant as a low cost transportation method for the black Africans. There are seriously thousands of these things driving around the city and I’ve not once seen anyone that’s not white in one. I’m told a ride generally costs 10-30R which is actually expensive for the people that ride them. These cab drivers also epitomize the absolute worst in driving. They don’t give a shit about safety and will literally stop in the middle of a freeway if someone wants to be let out. There’s a reason they have horrible safety records. When driving around these guys, give them their space and be sure not to mess with them. This was actually one of the first things I was told when arriving in the country.
Driving and traffic in Joburg
I was told by many people that Joburg has terrible traffic, and terrible drivers. I suppose it’s the old saying that we’re products of our own environment because I’ve driven around most of Joburg now and have not experienced these terrible drivers. Drivers are probably a bit more aggressive than your average city in America but it’s nothing that I haven’t seen living in NYC and having visited Southern California on numerous occasions. In fact, I’d say drivers are actually nicer here than I thought as everyone here seems to be willing to let you pass them if you need it. It’s still early, however, in a years time I could completely change my mind but so far so good!
Traffic is quite horrid on the highways during rush hour as I have experienced a few times. Thankfully, I live in the city center of Sandton and have a short commute within the city so I am able to avoid highway traffic altogether. Thank god because I hate driving as much as it is but to have to sit in traffic for a half hour every day would make it that much worse.
I’ve been told by many people that the police used to be like a figment of your imagination. One could speed, party, and drive drunk at their will and cops could care less. Enter the modern day and it’s a complete 180. Cops are extremely attentive when it comes to drunk driving and there is zero tolerance. Regular road blocks are set up on the main highways late at night to make sure someone’s night ends a whole lot worst than a rejection from the cute girl at the bar. There may be a legal limit to blood alcohol level but it seems that the golden rule is just to not drink period. At the end of the night, it’s all up to the discretion of the police officer and if he wants to make your life miserable, he is able to.
Bribing is customary practice in South Africa. If you’re caught drinking and driving, there’s a good chance you can get away with it with enough cash on hand. Although, even if you haven’t been drinking and driving, I’ve been told horror stories of police threatening someone to drive to the ATM to withdraw cash otherwise they’d take them in. I’ve even gone out with a friend that just withdrew cash before going out just in preparation for any police. How much will buy you freedom you say? 200-500Rand seems to be adequate. If you’re a foreigner, and the cops know it, you may be looking to pay a lot more. Best practice, just do not drink and drive in this country. The jails are supposedly the last place on Earth you’d want to be and they are closed on the weekends so if you’re taken in on a Friday, you’re in for the entire weekend!
I’ve already had a few experiences with the cops and to sum it up, like many other third world countries, police are corrupt. Bribes are the name of the game here. I had a glass of wine with a 600 gram steak one night, and they pulled over my car and breathalyzed me. Somehow, I blew a 0.28 after a glass of wine so it’s clear this was a completely rigged test as only a baby would blow that kind of BAL with that amount of alcohol. I don’t want to be racist or anything but for people reading this, it’s better to have the full honest experience than not. If you’re a foreigner like me, Asian AND American, you’re going to get extra screwed if you get pulled over. As soon as the cop saw my face, and then heard my accent, saw the car I was driving, he immediately knew he was going to take me for everything I had.
The cop, after breathalyzing me, said I was going to jail and to tell my friends that they could pick me up tomorrow. I was a little scared, but at no point did I for one second actually think I was going to jail. I straight up told him, “Hey I don’t want to go to jail, what can we do about this?”.
Cop immediately responds, “I don’t know, what CAN you do about this?”
“I have 200R on me (20$)”
Cop – “No I know you have more money than that”
“Okay fine, how about 1000R? (100$)”
Cop – “That’s very good, there’s an ATM down the street, get some cash, and come back”
After getting the cash – “Sorry I only have 800R actually”
Cop – “That’s good enough”
After giving him the cash
Cop – “Hey Brother, that’s a very nice suit”
Me – “Oh thanks man, it’s custom made”
Cop – “I like it, have a good night brother. Here’s my number. If you run into trouble again, give me a call and I’ll handle it”
When I tell people the story, people don’t respond with a oh my god how could they? But rather a, “wow you paid him 800R? I always just give 200 max”. It’s clear this is common fare in the country of South Africa. Obviously, if you’re a foreigner, you will be paying the foreigners premium, and you’re likely to get in trouble even if you’ve barely drank, no way around it. Cops know a foreigner is scared shitless of the SA jails and will do anything to avoid it. Nevertheless, the way I see it is if you’re actually drunk and driving, getting off with 80$ is still FAR better than getting a DUI and jail time.
International Drivers License
Prior to coming to this country, I was told by many that it’d be a good idea to get an international drivers license. To put it simply, this is just another card you pay money for and it magically says you’re able to drive in other countries. No tests of any sort required, just submit an application, pay some cash and you’re good to go. A few companies do it, like the IDL, and AAA, but I am quite sure the only legit international drivers license comes from the AAA. All you need are some photos, a copy of your current license, and about 40$.
So an international drivers license required in South Africa? Absolutely not from what I’ve experienced so far. The rental car companies never cared to see one. The cops certainly never cared either. They may be important in other countries but are certainly unnecessary in this country.
The South African car market
South Africa is home to almost all cars I’ve ever seen plus some Italian and French cars not seen in America. American cars are not that big due to import costs but there is a huge abundance of Japanese, German, and French cars. Where I live in Sandton, I would say there is a higher concentration of German luxury cars than anywhere else I’ve been to in the world. BMW, Mercedes, and Audi are common fare here and if I to pick the most driven car, it would be a BMW 3 series. I’ve also seen many many exotic car brands like Lambos, Ferraris, Aston Martins and Porche which really begs the question of “Is income disparity really that high here, or do some people just choose to spend their entire paycheck on a car and live in a shack?”
Nevertheless, prior to moving here, I heard the cars in SA were much more expensive than in America which didn’t excite me. However, after doing some due diligence, I quickly realized that while NEW cars are indeed more expensive in SA, used cars are on par if not CHEAPER than in America. Thank you Autotrader! To put it into perspective, I visited an audi dealership and the new 2013 A4s were starting out at R340000, so about 34,000 USD. A used 2010 BMW 3 series however, was going for R185,000 or about 18k USD. Before I had even moved here, I was already looking at car prices getting an idea of what I wanted and roughly how much it’d cost so by the time I got here, I’d be able to plan out my day to day expenses and I’d recommend anyone else to do the same.
Gas vs Diesel
Here is a heated debate that I am certainly no expert of. Diesel cars hardly exist in the US and maybe 50% of gas stations even offer diesel fuel and it is more expensive than gasoline. However, in South Africa, Diesel cars are big time and growing fast. Diesel is about the same price as petrol and every single gas station offers it. For anyone as clueless about cars as me, the main appeals for Diesel are
- Much more gas efficient than petrol. About 50% more efficient is what I’m told.
- Higher torque, so better acceleration (this is true from personal experience)
Reasons against diesel include:
- Diesel engines are louder generally but recent cars have technology to minimize as much as possible
- Not good on environment
- More frequent maintenance
I really have no valuable input to offer but everyone I’ve talked to seems to all be on board for diesel cars nowadays. I ended up buying one. Let’s see what happens in the coming months!