Fikile Mbalula and the big driver’s licence mystery

Wednesday was supposed to be the big reveal, the day when Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula was going to tell us – and show us – what the catastrophic crisis has been with the production of licences. The story to date is simple. There’s one machine. It’s made in Germany. It’s broken. No one is able to renew their licences.

The machine should have broken down at some stage, it’s been churning out these licences since at least 1998 when I got my first card licence. If it hadn’t broken down since then, that’s nothing less than a tribute to the German engineers who made it. 

But no, prior to the big reveal, Mbaks announced: “There’s much about the process that is not understood.” As the inimitable Richard Poplak quipped on Twitter; “It’s like the fucker just launched the James Webb telescope from the top of Luthuli House”. But of course, Wednesday came and went and we’re still waiting for the big reveal. Apparently Mbaks got his Wednesdays wrong, he’ll tell us next Wednesday – or maybe he’ll be playing with his trains again.

If you place your ID card and the driving licence side-by-side, it’s difficult to understand what the fuss is about. The ID card is, short of having it on your smartphone, incredibly high tech compared to the driver’s licence: there are microdots, holographs and other anti-forgery devices. By contrast the driver’s licence doesn’t look like much advanced than the student cards that were issued at Rhodes University in the 1980s. It’s Michael J Fox in Back to the Future – although we are well past 2015. It shouldn’t even have been that difficult to make them here, they’re that basic. 

In fact, here’s a revolutionary thought, why don’t we just incorporate driver’s licences on the Home Affairs ID card? That way, in a truly digital space, the law enforcement officer just scans the barcode to find out whether you are who you say you are – and whether you should be behind the wheel. Even better, you can go to a bank to get it, if the system isn’t down at Home Affairs.

But no, that would mean breaking silos in government – and especially ministries – so the door has been opened, officially, to people driving with expired licences through no fault of their own. Or they can pay a couple of bob to have their pix sellotaped to a temporary licence, which can literally be issued from the boot of the car of one of the many entrepreneurs that sit with their printers hooked up to car batteries outside testing and licencing centres. Maybe some of them are.

The surprise is that any of us are surprised. 

The ANC has had some truly stellar characters over the years, international icons. Being a broad church though has also meant that it’s also housed some real lemons; chancers, charlatans, incompetents, braggarts, bullies and bullshitters.

In that pathetic pantheon, Minister Fokop, the friend of boxers and taxi bosses alike – but not motorists or commuters – truly is the undisputed champion of his weight division. He wears the crown (and Dame Edna glasses) with a panache that truly is to the manor born.

Originally published by the Saturday Star on 22 January 2022.