There is a bad reputation of Johannesburg being a bit….unsafe compared to the rest of South Africa. While our stay was very short (two nights), we stuck to touristy attractions and fancy neighborhoods for restaurants. On our second and final night, we opted for a dinner at The Local Grill in Rosenberg, a fancy neighborhood not far from Sandton, where our Hilton was located. Patrick wanted to drink and not be the responsible driver, so I planned to drive to and from dinner in our rental car. We are not accustomed to driving on the left side of the road or having our drivers’ side on the right, so it was important to me to get some daylight practice in before driving back after dinner. We took neighborhood streets and managed to make it to dinner unscathed. A great victory for me being my first time driving on opposite roads.
Dinner was fantastic, we shared a plate of steaks and a bottle of wine. Patrick had 3-3.5 glasses and I had .5-1 glass of wine, knowingly having to drive us both home with a clear head.
We were also sensitive to the curfew in place from COVID, which was 9pm. We had dinner early, around 6pm and made the drive back around 7:30pm. The route home was a bit different, directing us towards the highway instead of the neighborhood streets. No problem, less than 15 minutes back either way. One exit before the hotel and about 3min from our destination there was a police barricade. Again, no problem, we’ve seen this in other countries especially with COVID restrictions in place (i.e. Turkey) so we had our passports ready and sure enough, we were asked to pull off by the South African Police.
First, the two officers approached us, asked how we were and to see our passports. No problem, then they also asked if we had Traffic Register Number, which is apparently is a way to register foreign drivers and their vehicles when they don’t have a driver’s license in South Africa. It proves you’re legally allowed to drive in the country. The officer told us to google it, and while it appears to be required, I’m sure many tourists are stopped and ticketed for it because it requires an in-person application, fee and takes several weeks to come in. We had the rental car for 5 days, so there was no way we would have been able to get a Traffic Register Number. Fine, apparently that isn’t something that the rental car facility takes care of.
Then the officers asked us if we had anything to drink. I honestly told them I had a glass of wine at dinner, which was when things took a turn for the worse. All of a sudden they pulled out a breathalyzer and asked me to blow….WHAT? How mortifying to be asked to do that at all, when I was so focused on getting us home safely in another country at night with different driving sides, that I intentionally limited my intake. As it turns out, the laws in South Africa changed and there is now a Zero Tolerance mandate for alcohol. You cannot drive for 4 hours after having 1 drink, which essentially means you cannot have anything at all in your system while driving. They had me blow onto the breathalyzer from a distance. I’ve never blown on one but I thought you have to put your mouth on the device for it to count (another red flag) and the office claimed I blew some percentage BAC, and any percentage is illegal regardless of how microscopic it is. One glass of wine at dinner was absolutely breaking a federal law.
After the breathalyzer, they calmly told me how they would have a lady cop come over, read me my rights, handcuff me and do bloodwork down at the police station and how my husband could pick me up in the morning with a bail of 5000 rand (roughly ~$500 USD). WHAT. ARE YOU KIDDING ME??? To their credit they were very calm explaining how they were going to arrest me for my glass of wine at dinner. As they started to explain, Patrick blew up (3 glasses of wine gave him courage or stupidity to start throwing a fit at the police officers telling us they have to arrest me. He started yelling at them that an arrest was not going to happen, I was not going to the station, and we were 3min from our hotel. Yelling. Yelling at a police officer. I was honestly worried they would pull him out of the car and shoot him or tase him or arrest him for verbally assaulting them. Thankfully they were calm, but while Patrick was yelling at the cop on his side, the second cop was on my side and I kept asking him what was going on and if it was required I be arrested, and what was going on (out of disbelief) and he probably told me 10 times that I had to be arrested and taken to the station.
When Patrick continued to freak out on the cop, he was asked to open the back of the vehicle for them to search. We couldn’t even figure out how to pop the trunk in this vehicle, so they ended up doing it for us in the console and proceeded to search our car. Important aspect, they had our passports hostage this whole time, so we couldn’t go anywhere.
After our vehicle got searched, the police officers shifted tune to saying they could help us out by paying my bail on the spot…… Seems a bit odd? Real time bail payment sounds a bit more like…a police bribe? So the conversation shifted from “My wife is not going anywhere, certainly not down to the police station” to “we do not even have $5000 rand to give you.” The scare tactics of the South African police shifted into a negotiation for my freedom? WTF. I asked if they took card (millennial American here) to which the officer on my side said they had no card reading machine. He also suggested I just walk to the nearest ATM, pull out money and come back to get passports back. On Patrick’s side of the car he was playing negotiation hardball. It went from 5000 rand to 3000 rand because the officers were “doing us a favor” which Patrick then said “all the rand (~$20 USD) I have plus $100 USD” I knew Patrick had $500 USD on hand, which is why I not only was telling him to calm down, but also just pay the dudes $200 or $300 so we could be on our way and GTFO. Patrick, continuing to both yell and negotiate for my release, had both police officers back on his side telling him to calm down. This was a nightmare come true, and if I ended up in the Johannesburg drunk tank, I would have no way of communicating with Patrick since we had no phone plan or local contacts.
After about 15-20min of arguing with the police officers, they finally accepted the bribe of $100 USD plus remaining rand and gave us our passports back. As I was driving off from the scene of my crime, all I could think and say was “WTF just happened.” On a funny / light note, apparently all I’m worth is $120 to Patrick. Some say their spouses are priceless, but apparently $120 is my worth. On the more serious side, that could have been a horrible outcome to end up in the Johannesburg prison. For a glass of wine at dinner.
We got back to the hotel, again only 3min from the arrest, and called it a night. My adrenaline was going and I couldn’t sleep well thinking about what could have happened. When we both woke up, we agreed that they could have absolutely arrested me since I broke a law. In the moment we had such disbelief, but after a night’s rest, our opinion softened a bit and then we vowed to never drive at night again and only Uber to/from dinners from then on.
The morning after we had a very uneasy 4-hour drive to Limpopo where 57 Waterberg, our safari destination, awaited us. Every time we would see a police car or toll station we were on edge, even though it was 9am and full light. Never again am I driving in South Africa. Shame on me for not knowing the drinking laws and thank goodness we were able to successfully bribe (donate too?) the South African police force. That is not something I ever want to experience again.
After the shock wore off and we continued down the garden route and subsequent wine region, we mentioned our little run-in with the different property managers of the boutique hotels in which we were staying. Every person echoed the sentiment “Everyone in Jo-berg is corrupt.” While that is a big sweeping statement, it was consistent with all the people we spoke to. Our taxi driver one night even told us it would be incredibly difficult to arrest an international tourist because they would have to talk to the US Embassy first to make an arrest. At most it would have been a 100 rand (~$8 USD) fine for my glass of wine.
It gave us quite a scare, and although we had a great time in South Africa over all, I would never opt for the personal car transport again.
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