Driving tests: a spectator sport

Bridget Hilton-Barber

I was driving through Lenyene a few Saturdays ago – it’s a small rural township outside Tzaneen in Limpopo province, where I live – when I noticed a lively crowd of people gathered at the edge of a dusty field.

I slowed down, thinking it was a local soccer match, but then I realised the crowd was watching wannabe drivers doing their driver’s licence tests on a makeshift testing ground.

In the absence of malls, movie houses and other entertainment in places like this, driving tests have become a spectator sport. I pulled over and watched for a bit.

It was better than Isidingo, The Young and the Restless and The Bold and the Beautiful combined. There was wild clapping, cheering and whistling as hopeful drivers, most of them youngsters and mainly women, climbed into the truck. Most people here do a Code 10 licence for a truck, which automatically qualifies you for a Code 08 for a regular car.

As the nervous drivers were put through their paces, the crowd either booed or whooped according to their performance. Those who stalled or knocked over the orange road markers were met with guffaws and insults, while those who didn’t got clapping and ululating.

The successful emerged to high fives and backslapping; the unsuccessful slunk off with their tails between their legs.

On the edges of the crowd, hawkers were doing a brisk trade in roasted mealies and fresh fruit and vegetables, cellphone airtime and cold beers. A group of young guys in a VW Golf with tinted windows and dashboard fur were playing loud oomsta-oomsta music. I left reluctantly as a crowd of young women gathered happily around a mate who had gotten her licence. A little way down the track, a mother comforted her crying daughter who one can only presume failed the grade.

Driving back home I noticed for the first time how many driving schools there are in the area – some in official-looking buildings, others in nothing more than a painted hut under a scruffy acacia tree.

One, called David’s Driving School, featured smashed windows, a series of wrecked cars parked inauspiciously outside and a lone goat tethered to a post.

In Tzaneen alone there are more than six driving schools, including Bongy’s Driving School, Tzaneen Driving School, TJ’s Driving School, the International Driving School, even the interestingly named Surprise Driving School! I’m sure the instructors there have their fair share of surprising tales.

Most mornings and afternoons on the outskirts of town you will see crowds of youngsters waiting on the side of the road for their turn behind the wheel of their chosen school’s truck. And drop in anytime to the town’s testing grounds and the place will be packed to capacity with young people waiting to sit their learners’ licences or do their practical driving test.

Upward mobility in rural areas has come to mean getting a licence. And it seems the best way to do it is through one of the schools which, although don’t guarantee a licence, have a high pass rate. They are pricey though – a course at your average driving school costs upwards of R3 000 (US$380), excluding the payment of R800 ($100) or so which goes to the traffic department.

It’s not surprising that some resort to the help of local sangomas. In the high street in Tzaneen, a blackboard on the pavement outside a herbalist’s shop offers help for “asthma, adultery, sex problems, drivers licence, madness and debt problem (sic)”.

Apparently they don’t come too cheap either. And, of course, the chance to actually buy your own car is impossibly out of reach for most people.

But nothing, it seems, is stopping the tide of people heading for driving schools. And nothing is stopping the testing grounds becoming popular meeting spots.

I noticed while driving through Bolobedu South the other day that many old gogos bring along their own plastic chairs, which they use to sit on while they wait for a lift to the testing ground, and then use them to sit on while they watch the thrill of the show. This is local drama at its best.

Bridget Hilton-Barber is a well-known travel writer based in Limpopo province. She has worked as editor of South African Airways’ inflight magazine Sawubona, debut editor of Lowveld Living, travel correspondent for Radio 702 and travel editor of FairLady magazine. She is the author of seven books.