Importing a vehicle into South Africa
Before I tell of my experience I need to emphasize: I have never imported a vehicle before I embarked on this journey and I have no logistics knowledge.
In 2009 my husband was offered a work opportunity in Maseru, Lesotho. We were living in Melbourne, Australia at the time. We accepted the offered and made two decisions:
1. We would leave the furniture we shipped from South Africa two-and-a half years earlier to Australia in Australia and
2. We would ship the Audi TT Roadster we had purchased in Australia with us to South Africa.
We have many times pondered our decision. At the time we decided as follows: if we sold the vehicle to a dealer in Australia, after owning it for only two-and-a-half years we would stand to lose around half the amount we paid. If we sold it out of hand, we might not lose as much, but the market for luxury cars in Australia is tight and we had no interest at all during the time we advertised the vehicle.
Crown Relocation, being the people who shipped my initial container from South Africa to Australia and also the people now moving my furniture again was our natural choice for the shipping.
My reception at Crown Melbourne was courteous. I was about to spend a lot of money with them, so you’d think they’d at least be that…courteous.
Before we even dove into the details of this shipment the Crown representative made a comment: Most people would not ship a vehicle as it falls in the “too difficult” category.
This coming from a “Specialists” removals company I was a bit perplexed. However, being a perpetual optimist I figured... how difficult could this be…I was about to find out.
Before you can ship a vehicle into South Africa you need to understand what the import “requirements” are. If you thought that Crown was standing, ready and rearing with this information – you would be wrong. Fortunately, the internet is a wonderful place and I found that you only need two documents for this import: one from Trade and Industry and one from NRCS or the old SABS.
Naturally, there is a list of documents to be submitted to the relevant institution before they can issue their ‘permit’. In short: my employer, the Victoria Roads Authority and Audi Australia had to jump through hoops to provide these documents. Our poor pharmacist had to certify what felt like a million documents and we even had to drive the vehicle to his front door for him to inspect the certificate of compliance. Audi Australia went so far as to send a head office representative to the Melbourne dealership to certify that the vehicle comply with Australian build standards. Still, after numerous hours spent trying to talk to NRCS (from Australia), I could not obtain an ‘all clear’ permit from them. The vehicle could be imported but would only ‘be cleared’ once NRCS inspected it in Pretoria.
The biggest problem I had, was that I really didn’t understand what all these documents meant or did for me. My main concern (being an accountant) was: will I have to pay VAT on the import or will I comply with the ‘returning resident’ exemption. The requirements for registering the vehicle in South Africa did not even really occur to me.
Back in South Africa, I had to submit all my original documents to Crown Relocation for the clearing of the vehicle. With that being settled I waited for the container to arrive. 6 October 2009, I was driven to Crown’s Johannesburg warehouse to collect my vehicle. Overcome with emotion I asked the Crown people sharing in the moment where to from here. The one suggested I reattach my Australian number plates (which the Australians removed) and another suggested I go around with no number plates. Hhhmmm – opinions I figured… no facts! I decided to follow my own instincts and reattached the number plates. Before I said my good byes to Crown I asked if there aren’t some documents which they might need to provide me with. They looked at each other shrugged their shoulders and sent me on my merry way.
My first stop of course was NRCS in Pretoria. To obtain the ‘all clear’ permit, remember? Getting an appointment with NRCS is basically as easy (or difficult if you wish) to find a seat on a train in peak hour.
Once at NRCS, parked illegally and waiting for 2 hours for the official to see me… I was asked: “why am I here”? I explained my whole sad story to the man to which he turned, asked me to pop the bonnet pointed out the certificate of compliance plate and said that’s all that is required. I had to force myself not to yell: “I’ve sent that document to you people… I scanned and emailed it, copied, enlarged and faxed it, photographed, cropped and mailed that thing!!’ “Oh, sorry” he responded. Let me go print you the permit…. I could only sigh. Incompetence!
My next stop was Potchefstroom. This is my South African domiciliary and naturally where I would register the vehicle.
On a bright morning in November my mother-in-law and I set off to the registration office. All you need to register a car is some patience, right? WRONG!
The lady behind the information counter dismissed my friendly smile without blinking an eye stating that I should not come to her before I’ve been to the police. Right, the police. Fortunately some kindred spirit behind us in line overheard the instruction and promptly told us that he was sent from pillar to post the previous day, also in an attempt to clear up ‘whatever’ with the police. The police we were looking for were some obscure office outside of town where all the police confiscated and dilapidated cars lived.
The police officer was the friendliest and most helpful person I had met on this journey up to that point. I need to mention that whenever dealing with this vehicle, I have only been met by pessimists or know-it-alls. Everybody you speak with is a guru when it comes to all things vehicles AND importing and everyone knows for a fact that I might as well burn the car as I will never get it registered, will never be able to service it, will never be able to find any part for it ever, anywhere!
Back with the police officer, we had a chat and he explained to me that my journey is only now starting and that I need to brace myself for a rough ride! He conjured up some documents, had a fiddle around the bonnet looking for the VIN or engine number (not actually finding it), and sent me on my way back to the traffic office. Where is my weighbridge report was the first question being back at traffic. W-h-a-t? there is the vehicle’s weight: right on every document I have in my hands. Nope, not good enough. Find a weighbridge… A few days after setting off, my import documents were submitted to Potchefstroom Road Traffic Department for reasons unbeknownst to me…but I felt I had accomplished something. I was on my way, literally, with my Australian number plates to Lesotho to get back to work! Very optimistically dreaming about personalized number plates for my Australian vehicle.
As 2009 drew to a close I was a bit nervous about my precious documents being with some obscure government department but I had faith in everyone. Early 2010 I received a call from Potchefstroom. They need the ‘SARS release’. Again…. W-h-a-t? the ‘SARS release’. Okay, where do I start? Does this document have a reference number? Who was this document originally issued to? Where should it be?
Who can help me?
I phoned Crown. Okay, they’ll courier all the documents they have to my mother-in-law in Potchefstroom. Now, this begs a lot of questions. Did I not ask for my documents? Could they not be bothered with ensuring that I had my correct documents?’
The documents were couriered to Potchefstroom. My mother-in-law submitted them to the traffic office. Time passed. Not sufficient I was told!
A year went by.
In 2011 out of frustration with the Potchefstroom Traffic Department and Crown Relocation I contacted Crown’s clearing agent: Robeck International Freight. At last… someone who speaks import. The lady advised me that the document I needed was the Original Block Stamp. At last I knew what was missing. Now for finding it. Robeck assured me that they do not keep those documents. Crown acknowledged that they actually had no idea what they did with it. I asked Potchefstroom Traffic Department to return my documents to re-group.
I resubmitted the documents. No good! I was told. All the while I’m driving around with foreign number plates. I was pulled over by a traffic official who promptly commented that I had a lovely car. At a service station a police officer had a look at the number plates, then at the license disk in the window (which was valid) and then started a jolly conversation with me. A border official on the South African side of the South Africa / Lesotho border waved his arms at me, smiled and yelled ‘welcome from Botswana’…..(??). It was clear that nobody was clear about my rights, least of all me.
At the end of 2011 my husband and I was on the move again; moving from Lesotho to Tanzania. The unspoken words were hanging like a foul smell over us: what about the car? The only option I could see remaining was returning the vehicle from where it came from, Australia. Obviously not considering Crown relocation for the job.
Let’s give it one more go my husband suggested. My heart sank. See if you can’t find someone on the internet that can help. I couldn’t find someone…but my husband did.
Enter Cheryl Sandmann.
Before you import a vehicle into South Africa you need to ask yourself a few questions:
1. Do I know how to obtain the relevant documents required for the import?
2. Do I know the process of introducing and registering a car in South Africa
3. Can I tell the difference between an import document which will be accepted by the traffic authorities and one which will not be accepted?
4. Do I have the confidence that the person I am dealing with at my local traffic department understand the introduction and registering process?
5. Does your local police office dealing with vehicles know where to find your VIN and Engine number?
6. Do I know where to find my VIN and Engine number?
7. Do you know for how long your documents will be valid?
8. Do you know which queue to fall into?
9. Do you know if it’s legal to drive with foreign number plates?
And then lastly
10. DO YOU FEEL LUCKY?
Today, 2 years 5 months and 17 days after my vehicle came out of the container it was shipped in; I can confidently say that when starting out I could answer NO to all of the above questions. (Honestly, I still can).
This journey has been the loneliest place I’ve ever been. Everybody you speak to is a specialist know-it-all pessimist with nonsensical quick fix opinions. Ask them if they’ve ever seen a NRCS LOA you will quickly change their know-it-all-ism to pessimism! Confronted by a government worker on the other side of a glass partition, not willing to listen or heaven forbid advice is the biggest killer of hope I’ve ever encountered.
So my husband found Cheryl’s contact details on the internet. Sure, I said: ‘I’ve also found names on the internet – those people don’t exist! They never reply to your email or phone you’. ‘Cheryl has already responded to my email’ my husband replied. I was stunned ‘what did she say?’ ‘No problem’ he said. No problem meaning what? Did you clearly explain to her our position? Does she understand that this is an i-m-p-o-r-t-e-d vehicle? Does she understand we’ve been trying to get this done for the last 2 years? Yes, yes and yes were the answers! Cheryl said she could do it for us.
Cheryl was in Cape Town. No problem I said. Love Cape Town. When can we meet?
I did not allow myself to hope. Cautiously, without telling many people I set off to Cape Town.
I met Cheryl and straight of the bat I explained to her that this story might not have a happy ending. She laughed. I shoved my treasured papers in her face… this is what I have I said. She was neither interested really in the paperwork nor with my concern. She only got going! By this time next week you’ll be registered she said. I didn’t know if I should laugh or cry.
In a quick morning she took me on a drive though Cape Town getting all the paper work she needed. She used the words which took me 2 years to learn and understand in everyday language and even explained where how and why they were needed and where in the process they fit in. By lunch time she was still all smiles. Okay, now for the paper work. She paged through my file having a quick glance at the documents which I’ve pondered over for 2 years. Whilst sipping her cooldrink she casually mentioned that the NRCS document is not quite official and my import permit had expired. I felt like crying once more. What now, I dared asked. Not a problem she assured me. She’ll sort it out. What about the Block Stamp? She pointed out an obscure stamp and proceeded saying – that’s a strange place for the stamp to be. Yes, so strange that it totally confused Potchefstroom, Crown and myself.
After lunch we parted ways with Cheryl having a last chuckle at my final utterance of utmost disbelieve and sinicism.I left Cape Town feeling confident that Cheryl knew what she was doing! If this car could be registered, Cheryl would be the person to get it done!
A week passed. I was waiting to hear from Cheryl. The call came. Bad news. I knew it! I knew this was simply too difficult. All the while I should have heeded the advice from the Crown people in Australia. I should never have shipped this vehicle.
Cheryl explained: the officials in Potchefstroom have started the process of introduction but did not complete the process. The result is they are prohibiting Cheryl from doing anything. What do you want me to do Cheryl, I remember asking, choosing my words carefully, not wanting to indicate that I was ready to through in the towel. Just be patient Cheryl said. She now had to exert her expertise in Potchefstroom, very far from her comfort zone in Cape Town… But she did!!!
On 23 March 2012, Cheryl Sandmann emailed me the registration documents of the vehicle which I loaded full of bravado into a container in Australia two-and-a-half years earlier.
During the two years of struggle I came upon this caption:
“When last did you do something for the first time?”
I am fortunate to be able to say: thank goodness I will never have to import a vehicle into South Africa again, for the first time!
At SAPS inspection location to identify markings on Audi identifiers