Trucking on …

Key players in the FOCUS editor’s quest to go trucking! From left: Janke van Jaarsveld (IDes Driving Academy), Alexander Taftman (Scania), Charleen Clarke (FOCUS), John Nelson (Scania) and Shane September (Scania).

I have discovered that it takes time, patience, comfortable shoes and tenacity to get a truck driver’s licence. Oh, a sense of humour is helpful too …

Like Martin Luther King, I have a dream. I want to get a truck driver’s licence (like 99 percent of South African trucking journos, I don’t have one). I have obviously driven trucks, lots of them – all over the globe. But always on private roads.

Being the cheeky sod that I am, I mentioned my dream to Alexander Taftman, marketing director of Scania, recently … and I also suggested that the company sponsor the project. To my delight, the affable Alexander didn’t look at me in shock and horror. Instead he said he would investigate the idea and come back to me.

And so he did! “We will sponsor you; no problem!” he responded. “So, when do you want to start?”

That was at the end of 2013. Fast forward two months and I arrive at the Randburg Driving Licence Testing Centre (DLTC). The guys at Scania have contracted IDes Driving Academy to teach me everything I need to know in advance of writing my learner’s licence examination. I have sat with the patient Janke van Jaarsveld from TMI for two hours. Using the company’s exceptionally clever web-based tutorial, he has introduced me to many weird and wonderful signs and markings. I swear I have never seen some of them before. Poor Janke is tasked with teaching this “old dog” lots of new tricks …

But, before I can write the exam, I need to study (a lot) and make an appointment. The latter will be a cinch, I reckon. Janke disagrees. “You will be queuing for hours. Get there early. And take a good book,” he advises.

It is thus that I have arrived at the Randburg DLTC at 6.45 am. I park behind a white BMW, surrounded by some extremely dodgy-looking characters, who appear to be conducting an illicit transaction from the car’s boot. We eye each other down. I wonder if I should leave the safety of my car. After a five-minute staring match, I decide to make a run for it … and head for the relative safety of the actual testing station. But, the minute I step from the car, I am confronted by a particularly scary-looking bloke, who stands precisely three millimetres in front of me. “Hey lady! What are you doing here?” he enquires. I explain that I want to make the appointment. “You want to do a learner’s for a car?” he asks.

“No, a truck,” I reveal.

He steps back. “You … a truck driver … serious?” That seems to impress him, because he leaves me alone and I scamper towards the security guard at the gate to the testing station. I ask him about secure parking for my car, which is now surrounded by the dodgy-looking dudes.

There isn’t any. “Join the queue,” he instructs me. (I am yet to discover that this instruction could be the anthem of wannabe truck drivers.) It turns out that I am the queue; there isn’t a soul in sight. Twenty minutes later, the staff start trickling in and the queue grows … But it’s not bad; by the time the testing station opens at 7.30 am, there are only about 20 people waiting.

I am feeling pretty smug at this stage of the process. I have had my eyes tested in advance and I have remembered to pack a pen. I complete the required form in about two minutes and I march into the centre, full of bravado. Bring it on! I am ready to conquer the trucking world!

But suddenly I am brought down to earth with a bang. I am instructed to return on March 10, to write my exam. That’s the date I have been allocated. I explain to the official that this is impossible, because I am overseas on business on that day. I will return on March 27, so I would like to write any time after then. That’s impossible. I cannot get a later date. “Why not?” I protest.

“Because you may forget,” is the explanation.

“I assure you, ma’am, I won’t forget. But even if I do, you will have my money anyway …”I plead. The official reiterates – yet again – that a later date is simply impossible. The system won’t allow it. But I am not one to give up lightly. “Surely you must be able to make a plan,” I insist. She ponders the situation and gives me a number to call to “make a plan”. I pull out my mobile phone and start dialling.

She raises her hand and tells me to stop. “No, no, no. You can’t call now,” she instructs. I ask why not. She says that I should not call because she has given me her number, but she cannot talk to me right now – only later. This makes absolutely no sense, so I retreat to my car, tail between my legs. With my LL1 form and eye test clutched to my breast.

The dude at the BMW pounces on me immediately. “So, did you come right?” I explain the situation. “No problem. I know people in Johannesburg. You go there on your own and you will only be able to get an appointment in May, maybe June. I get you one next week. You pay me R400.”

I ask him how he will achieve this miracle. “I know people …” he reiterates. I decide that I am not sure about Mr BMW and his people so I jump into my car and make a swift departure.

Arriving at my office I decide on Plan B, or maybe I will call it Plan F, because my next port of call is the Florida DLTC. I am told that they are quite efficient and I should “come right” there. But I need to get there at 5 am because the queue will be horrendous.

It is. Even at 5.10 am, when I arrive, there are about 40 people in the queue. It is freezing cold and we are all being harassed by enterprising businessmen, who are selling places further forward in the queue for R100. (They should add hot coffee to their list of wares; they would make a small fortune.)

I chat to a guy at the front of the queue, who arrived shortly after 4 am. I feel sorry for him, because the “businessmen” are selling spots in front of him, so he is moving progressively backwards. I ask him why he doesn’t stop them. “I dare not. They will beat me up,” he says with a sad shrug, as yet another place in front of him is sold and he moves even further from the gate.

Eventually, after what seems like an eternity and lots of moaning about sore feet (clever me; I wore takkies in anticipation of spending hours on my feet), the gate is opened and we all stream in … to be greeted by complete chaos. Whereas the Randburg facility is orderly and most things (barring the actual bookings, as I discovered) happen in a fairly logical fashion, the scene in Florida is a complete shambles.

The ringmaster of this circus is an especially arrogant man, who must be one of the most unhelpful chaps I have ever encountered. Whenever anyone approaches him, no matter what the question, he lifts his finger, points, and barks: “Join the queue.”

Somehow I manage to establish that the first port of call is a table, where one must collect the blue LL1 form, which I already have (I got it in Randburg). So I approach the official at the table and explain the situation. He looks at me as though I have just robbed the Reserve Bank. “Where did you get that?” he yells. Then he tells me to toss my form and fill out a new one “because ours are different”.

I patiently show him my form and his form. We eventually agree that they say the same thing and are even the same colour. I show him the LL1 marking on the top right-hand side of the first page … on his and my forms. He scribbles a number on my form and waves me away. “What must I do now?” I ask.

The truck driver’s anthem sounds: “Join the queue.”

So I go back outside and try to figure out which queue to join. There are, by now, hundreds of people milling about. All equally confused. It reminds me of a scene from a sanatorium … With all the loony residents wandering about aimlessly. All we are missing is a bit of drool and the occasional straight jacket.

I ask the ringmaster what to do. It’s a waste of time. All I get is the truck driver’s anthem. The challenge is that, by now, there are lots of queues all over the place. So I head off to the nearest office and ask the guy at the back of the queue to explain what is going on. “This is where you book,” he tells me. Half an hour later, it turns out that he is wrong. This is where you pay. And you cannot pay before booking. That, I discover, happens in Room Two.

It’s clear that proper use of the English language is not high on the list of priorities at the testing centres. Neither, it appears, is efficiency ...So I head off there and join that queue … only to be told to go and join another queue to have my eyes tested. I show the official the optometrist’s report. “That doesn’t work here,” he says, with a wicked sneer (I decide he’s a real bully). “Join the queue to have your eyes tested.”

I insist that the optometrist’s report is perfectly legal … it’s even stipulated on the government’s website. To quote, it says, you must “go for an eye test at the testing centre or you may have an eye test performed by a qualified optometrist and submit the form at the testing centre”. Bully Boy raises his finger (at least it’s not his fist) and tells me to join the queue.

It is thus that I head back to the ringmaster, having established that he is also in charge of the queue for eye testing. I decide to resign myself to the fact that I will have my eyes tested – again. And just take in the sights and sounds of the testing station.

The ringmaster is having a field day, yelling at everyone. “I will call the number on your form and you must come here immediately. So don’t go to the toilet or shop. If I call your number and you are not here, you lose your place in the queue,” he bellows. At that stage, the highest number that I have seen is 220. So, in effect, you could lose over 200 places in the queue if you need to pee. It’s a hefty price to pay for a full bladder …

A sweet young girl in school uniform arrives. She is clearly bewildered as to what to do and where to go. She approaches the ringmaster with trepidation, asking for assistance. The finger goes up and he screams the truck driver’s anthem. The poor child gulps and bolts.

I enjoy a momentary respite as one of the ringmaster’s colleagues bumps into him while carrying a cup of tea. The scalding liquid pours down the ringmaster’s leg. Rather cruelly, I start giggling. This, I reckon, is poetic justice after how he has treated people. He sees me giggling and gives me a furious glare. I swallow my laughter and pretend to be coughing.

After two hours in this particular queue, my number is called. The eye testing starts. I ask this particular official why I need to have my eyes tested again, after all, the Randburg testing station was perfectly happy to accept the optometrist’s report. “They are lazy and they are taking shortcuts. What they are doing is illegal,” he contends.

Eventually I pass my eye test – again. Then it is back to two more queues: one at Room Two and one at payments. Eventually, after four hours of frustration, I leave. But at least I have an appointment for March 5.

One week later, disaster strikes. I must attend a vehicle launch on March 5. I need to change my beloved appointment. I call the testing centre to ask about this. No luck. So I beg a colleague, who lives in the area, to pop into the testing centre en route to work and change it. That doesn’t work either. The officials proclaim that it is “absolutely impossible” to change the appointment; I must go through the four-hour ordeal again. However one official adds that maybe, just maybe, if I return in person with “a letter from my boss”, someone may be willing to move mountains and actually change the appointment. Somehow …

So I run the gauntlet again … I make the long and arduous journey back to the Wild West (Rand) and I brave the businessmen, who offer me any number of dubious transactions. I march back to the omnipotent Room Two, where I anticipate going down on my knees. The official looks at me as though I am from Mars when I announce that I wish to change my appointment. Clearly this is a first in the history of drivers’ licences in South Africa. She explains that I must see the manager. I feel as though I am being sent to the headmaster’s office and go all weak at the knees.

The manager turns out to be a lady by the name of Esterlita. It takes her all of two clicks of the mouse to change the appointment on the computer. It’s an extremely simple exercise that a primary school child could master. Within five seconds flat, I have a new date: April 11.

As I drive back from Florida, I contemplate the fact that the officials in Randburg could have done the very same thing. But, then again, that would not have made quite as good reading … Now would it?

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