Shopping traffic officers thwarted

2012-05-10 00:00

IN our town the traffic officers fine you for good old-fashioned reasons like not wearing your safety belt, and talking on your cellphone while driving. And our traffic officers, they never ever shop on the job. Or treat you like an ATM.

“Where have you been? We have not seen you for ages!” Traffic officer Naledi greeted me like a long-lost friend when she pulled me over last week for the routine check. “I have been driving around the back roads avoiding you,” I explained, “because I had mislaid my driver’s licence.” We laughed together and I promised to see her more now that I had found it.

Herman was in Jo’burg last week, and he was pulled over by traffic officers who tried to shop on the job. “What have you got in the back of the van there?” The overweight aunty dressed in khaki (who does not deserve the title of traffic officer) asked him after she had inspected driver’s licence, licence disc and tyres, and could find nothing wrong. “Duvets and pillows,” he answered.

“You cannot go yet. Give me a duvet,” she teased — not. And got it — not.

Being pulled over by traffic officers is always a sweaty experience, even if they are your friends, and even if you know they are only trawling for bribes.

It’s when they start shopping for cars though, that it becomes an even sweatier experience. Lucy, a 21-year-old daughter of Wolmaransstad, had driven to Pretoria last month to get a visa for working in the States on a summer camp. On her way back past Soweto, she was pulled over by traffic officers who were in the market for a car. With a North West number plate, Lucy was vulnerable. And her licence disc had, in fact, expired. Lucy was just the somebody they were looking for. The traffic officers explained to her that she was to step out of the car so that they could confiscate it.

Lucy was not quite sure where she would go once she had stepped out of the car, or how she would get back to the North West Province, 285 km away. So she refused to do so, and phoned her mother (not her lawyer) instead. Lucy’s mother, Lani, works at the photo shop with my friend Adele.

When Lucy’s SOS came through, the shop was filled with the usual customers. People needing ID photos taken so they could apply for pensions and child grants, a mother wanting print-out photos of her daughter’s wedding that had taken place the previous weekend at that fantastic game lodge just out of town and Nigerian immigrants wanting passports photocopied.

Now Adele and Lani are not the quietest women on the block, so it took about 0,3 seconds for everyone in the shop to know that Lucy, Lani’s daughter, was outside Jo’burg about to be hijacked. Collectively, as one, the customers froze. Lani rushed to the back of the shop to ask the advice of Pieter, the owner. Adele stood with the phone in her hand, trying to comfort Lucy on the other end. Even if Adele and Lani had been able to “keep calm and carry on”, none of the customers would have expected to be served. But what on Earth could anyone do?

Now I was not there, but from what I know of this town I can guarantee you that everyone in the shop started praying silently in their own Zionist, Reformed, Islamic and Dutch Reformed ways.

And it seemed the collective effort worked. From their lips to God’s ears, he heard them.

One Mr Pappy stepped forward. “Give me the phone,” he commanded. “I am the superintendent of a traffic department in this province.” Adele handed it over with uncertainty. “Let me speak to the traffic officer,” he instructed Lucy. Although Lani and Adele understood little of what he was saying, as he spoke in Tswana, they got the gist of it. What the traffic officers were doing was illegal and shameful. If a car was unlicensed they were supposed to issue a fine, not confiscate the vehicle. Who were they anyway? Where they really traffic officers, or were they simply hooligans in stolen clothing?

The next call Lani got from Lucy, she was talking illegally but joyfully on her cellphone as she drove safely away from the traffic officers on her way to Potch. A collective sigh of relief floated up in the shop, along, I am sure, with prayer flags of thanks from the hearts of the customers to their god.

“En weet jy,” Adele told me later, “not one person left that shop until we all knew that Lucy was safe.”

Then back they went, to fill their new crisp white wedding albums with photos of last weekend, or to stand in the queue all day at the post office, waiting for a pension or a child grant.


• Catherine Smetherham is rediscovering herself and South Africa from a platteland perspective. She lives in Strydpoort, North West Province. Contact her at Catherine@



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