When I first arrived in South Africa in September 2016, it became rapidly apparent that I wasn’t in Vancouver, Canada anymore. There were full grown men running around in two-toned shirts and unintentionally hilarious hot pants, twonk-turkeys scaring the bejoobers out of me with their unholy yelling, and boerewors EVERYWHERE. Oh, and the most frightening drivers I’ve ever seen in my entire life. When people say “South Africa isn’t for sissies,” I’m pretty sure they specifically mean the roadways. It took me a while to figure out the rules of road, and I don’t want other people to have to find out the hard way, like I did. So if you’re new in the country, just visiting, or have lived here all your life and just need a refresher, I’m here to help you out with some tips for driving in South Africa.
1. First things first. This is South Africa. The drivers here are like none other on the planet. Make sure you’re not wearing your favourite underwear, because you’re going to want to throw them out as soon as you hit the roads. Welcome to the Thunder Dome.
2. Under no circumstances should you use your signal lights. Doing so will broadcast your intentions to change lanes and cause everybody in the lane you WANT to be in to aggressively close the gap so you’ll be forced to stay right where you are. Plus, everybody loves surprises. And that holds especially true with lane changes.
3. If there is the slightest bit of fog or rain on the road, or if you just don’t feel like driving the speed limit because having long lines of traffic stuck behind your car is kind of your “thing,” turn on your hazard lights. This serves not only to confuse properly trained drivers who know hazards should be used only when at a full stop or in a funeral procession, but it also takes away your ability to use your turn signal should you be tempted to ignore point number 2. Remember, confusion and surprise are the two primary goals of South African driving.
4. While your common sense and literally everything you’ve ever read may tell you to drive at- or at least close to- the posted speed on the roadways, just drive at whatever speed you feel like. 50km/hr on a 120km/hr freeway? No problem. Just make sure you’re in the far right lane to amplify the inconvenience experienced by other drivers. 130km/hr in a 60km/hr residential area? Go for it. The faster you’re going, the less chance you’re going to be the victim of a smash and grab. Safety first!
5. Make sure to leave as little room behind the car in front of you and your vehicle as humanly possible. This is especially important if you drive a Toyota Hilux. If you can’t look into the rear view mirror of the vehicle in front of you and see the whites of the driver’s eyes, get closer. Ride that bumper like a rented mule.
6. Use robots (traffic lights) as rough guides only. If there’s nobody coming the other way, or if you just feel strongly that the oncoming traffic will slam on their brakes and avoid hitting you, just go for it. Unless you’re stopped at a red robot and want to turn left. In that case, just wait it out. That’s the ONE rule South Africans inexplicably seem to follow without fail.
7. Keep hundreds of coins with you at all times. You’ll need to have them handy to pay the car guards who will magically appear after you’ve already loaded all your groceries and then proceed to stand precisely in your blind spot and guide you directly into both the parked and moving vehicles around you.
8. Whatever vehicle you happen to be driving, get yourself a trailer and fill it with spare tires. Not repairing crater-sized potholes is one of the government’s favourite pastimes, and if you venture off any one of the main freeways, you’ll go through a tire roughly every 7 minutes.
9. Always keep a small cooler filled with soda in your vehicle. It’s hot and dry in South Africa, and you’ll need something to give the traffic cops when they pull you over for actual or invented offenses.
10. Speed-bumps are everywhere. Make sure you floor it in between speed-bumps, then come to an abrupt halt and creep over the obstacles at a pace sure to infuriate even the most patient of drivers behind you.
11. When you’re driving at night, make sure you use your high beams at all times. Many of the cars coming your way will have only one working light (or none), and the extra light will help them to see.
12. If you need to rent a vehicle, rent one that looks like a South African taxi. That automatically allows you to do anything you want, wherever you want, whenever you want with absolute impunity. If you’re a taxi, you’re allowed to drive into oncoming traffic, over people’s property, through a mall, whatever. It doesn’t matter. If you’re not driving a taxi, good luck around taxis.
13. If you don’t feel like driving the speed limit on a two lane highway and feel bad that you’re causing other people to be late, don’t do the sensible thing and actually drive the speed limit. Instead, pull half into the shoulder and make the cars behind you feel pressured into passing you, even though it means they need to risk having a head on collision because there’s not enough room to pass you safely. That’s a whole lot of their problem and none of yours.
14. South African drivers are frightening. If you don’t want to have to watch the chaos around you as you drive, just look at your phone. Scroll through Facebook or chat to your friends on WhatsApp. At the very least, talk on the phone. Whatever distracts you from everything going on around you. Everyone else is doing it, and you don’t want to look like a tourist.
15. Maybe just hire an Uber. There’s a reason some governments issue warnings about driving here.
I hope these tips for driving in South Africa have helped you out. With a little bit of carelessness combined with the right amount of recklessness and undue care and attention, you’ll fit right in on the roads here. Stay safe out there!
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