South Africa is a wonderful country for driving, offering excellent road infrastructure, breathtaking landscapes, hospitable small towns, and, along some stretches, an expansiveness that will excite even the most intrepid travellers.
But, whether you’re a seasoned South African road tripper, tourist guide or driver – or a first-time tourist unfamiliar with driving in the country – it is important to be prepared for what you may encounter.
Drive around South Africa long enough, and you may just come face to face with a roadblock. Well known amongst locals, most roadblocks are regarded as pesky, but necessary nuisances. For the unacquainted, the sight of flashing blue lights and an officer flagging your car to the side of the road may elicit a fair amount of alarm.
As long as you’re following the law and driving safely, there is nothing to worry about at your standard police roadblock. However, there are reported cases of drivers being scammed at false, and on occasion even real roadblocks.
Knowing your rights and what to look out for at a roadblock will help keep you safe from opportunistic fiends, as well as identify whether or not the police are following correct procedure – allowing you to motor happily along your way.
What is a roadblock?
There are two types of roadblocks.
The first is the more common, informal roadblock, typically found on major roads or off-ramps – hotspots where police are more likely to catch drivers who are speeding or under the influence of alcohol. They will also usually check your vehicle’s roadworthiness and any outstanding fines on your license. The frequency of informal roadblocks tends to increase over the festive season and other holiday weekends.
The less common K78 roadblocks, mandated by the National Police Commission, are set up with the primary aim of finding a specific criminal or vehicle. In these cases, police are permitted to search you and your car.
What happens at a roadblock?
If your vehicle is stopped at either an informal or K78 roadblock, here’s what you can expect a police officer to do:
- Ask to see your driver’s licence and ID.
- Check for any outstanding fines.
- Check your vehicle's licence disk and perform a quick inspection of its exterior (e.g. headlights, indicators, etc.).
- Check for an Operating Licenses issued by the National Public Transport Regulator (NPTR), in the case of tourist transport service (tour operator) vehicles.
True anywhere, not just at roadblocks, if a police officer asks to conduct a search, you are entitled to see the Commissioner’s authorisation letter. Request politely, and if the officer is unable to produce this letter, you can legally refuse to be searched.
A valid authorisation letter must include the date, duration and purpose of the roadblock. However, if there are reasonable grounds or an urgent criminal investigation is underway, the officer may proceed without a warrant – actions they must later defend in a court of law.
Bribes at a roadblock
It is strictly illegal for a police officer to ask you to pay an on-the-spot fine. If this occurs, remain respectful while refusing to pay. Also, know that it is not necessary to be taken to a police station by an officer to pay the fine.
Legitimate traffic transgressions warrant an official ticket which must contain the details and location of the offence, the fine payable (in South African Rand) and the issuing officer’s name. Fines can be paid at a police station, online, or through a car rental company.
If you feel you have experienced harassment, you are entitled to report any misconduct to the nearest police station. If you still feel you have not been properly assisted, you can contact the Independent Police Investigative Directorate to look into the matter further.
Take note of the badge number and name of the police officer in question, as well as the vehicle registration number and the location of the roadblock. Provide as much identifying information as you can in your report.
Arrest at a roadblock
The police are allowed to make an arrest at a roadblock if they suspect you have committed a crime or are about to commit a crime. This includes driving under the influence, driving recklessly, wilfully obstructing the roadway, driving with an invalid licence, abusing an officer, or other criminal behaviours.
If you are arrested, the police must immediately tell you your rights and take you to the nearest station to be processed. It is not legal for you to be detained with the opposite gender.
You can apply for bail at the station, and within two days, you have the right to appear in court to plead your case.
Driving under the influence
In the event that you are pulled over and suspected of driving under the influence of alcohol, the police must follow a strict procedure.
Tell the truth if asked whether you have been drinking. You may find yourself in more trouble if you lie, and a breathalyser test indicates otherwise. You cannot refuse a breathalyser test without a legitimate reason that will hold up in court.
A blood-alcohol level above the legal limit of 0.05g/dl will require you to take a blood test. This must occur at a mobile unit, clinic or hospital, with sterile equipment and a police officer present. You can make a request for your personal doctor to take blood, but they must arrive within two-hours. For a blood test to be valid in court it must occur within two hours of the traffic stop.
Should your vehicle be deemed unroadworthy at a roadblock, an officer will insist you remove the car from the road as soon as possible. Depending on the seriousness of your vehicle’s condition, you may be allowed to continue to your destination or may have to stop driving immediately. The officer also has the right to remove your vehicle licence disc from the windscreen.
Filming the police at a roadblock
You may legally film or photograph the police at a roadblock. And while it may not be well-received, the police are not allowed to confiscate or damage your recording equipment or ask you to delete footage.
Verifying the authenticity of a roadblock
Perpetrators of false roadblocks and police impersonation are fiendishly attempting to catch you with your guard down in an unmoving vehicle, often in an isolated area where they can carry out muggings, ATM scams, and hijackings. Here is how you can prevent falling into this trap and tell the difference between a true police roadblock and something more menacing:
The officer conducting the roadblock must be in full police uniform – never pull over for anyone else. There are reported incidents of individuals wearing bright orange or yellow vests to an attempt to look more official as they indicate for you to pull over.
Be extremely cautious if the person at the roadblock, in police uniform or otherwise, asks you to accompany them to the police station or an ATM to pay the fine. Do not agree to go. At minimum, this is police misconduct, but far worse, you may be putting yourself in great risk by going to a second location.
You have the right to ask a police officer to identify him or herself with their appointment card, which must be carried at all times. Failure on the part of the officer to present identification is a red flag.
If you experience any of the above, or suspect there is a false roadblock, keep driving and phone 10111 to report the scene.
Tourist transport service (tour operator) vehicles
In South Africa, if you are an operator transporting passengers for gain, you must have a valid Operating Licence issued by the National Public Transport Regulator (NPTR), a regulatory entity established in terms of Section 20 of the National Land Transport Act, 5 of 2009.
The NPTR was launched in July 2016 but has unfortunately faced several challenges in timeously issuing Operating Licences. SATSA has been at the forefront of lobbying a solution to this crisis with Government.
Be that as it may, as an operator, you are required by law to display a valid Operating Licence, have the original in your vehicle at all times, and comply to the requirements and limitations of Annexure I of the Operating Licence, including route descriptions. Failure to do so could result in your vehicle being impounded and a fine issued.
The National Land Transport Act (Act 5 of 2009), National Land Transport Regulations makes provision, under section 25 (2), for expired Operating Licences to remain valid if you made the renewal application not later than 30 days before expiry and the NPTR has not issued the licence by the expiry date.
The licence will remain valid until the entity either issues the renewed licence or notifies you that the application has been refused. It is very important that you keep in the vehicle the expired Operating Licence and receipt issued by the NPTR as proof that such an application has been made.
If a receipt was not issued, it is suggested that any proof of application (a receipt notification from NPTR or the original application email) be printed and kept in the vehicle.
Always carry a working cell phone
Whether reporting dubious roadblocks or phoning help in the case of an emergency, make sure that you have a working cell phone on you at all times.
Keep these important numbers on hand:
Nationwide emergency response: 10111
Cell phone emergency: 112
Ambulance response: 10177
National traffic call centre: 0861 400 800 to report traffic offences or misconduct by a traffic official
South African Police Service (SAPS) national service complaints centre: 0800 333 177 to lodge a complaint of poor service, misconduct or corruption by a member of law-enforcement
Independent Police Investigative Directorate: 012 399 0000 to escalate a complaint if necessary