In April 2018, Tshwane launched a trial where vehicle and driver’s licensing centres started using an online booking system to help schedule renewals for driving licence cards.
It was amazing.
Available at the Akasia, Waltloo, Centurion, and Bronkhorstspruit licensing centres, the proof of concept operated by The Online Company South Africa worked well, granting priority access to people who made an appointment online.
You come in at the appointed time, and within 30 minutes your licence card renewal application was completed.
There was a special section of the licensing centre dedicated to those who booked online, while other sections continued to serve “walk-in” clients.
Tshwane licensing centres crippled by thieves
The online booking system trial was a welcome reprieve from the drop in service levels seen at licensing centres around Tshwane due to a spate of robberies that crippled the infrastructure at Centurion and Waltloo.
Thieves broke into the licensing service centres at Centurion and Waltloo in 2017, taking cameras, computers, and live capture systems.
In a separate incident, thieves stole an undisclosed sum of money at Waltloo after assaulting security personnel and officials.
An attempted burglary at Akasia was thwarted by the SAPS and Metro Police, however, leading to the arrest of two people.
As a result of the thefts, no licence renewals were possible at Centurion or Waltloo for a period.
Service levels at Centurion were never quite the same after the robbery. People queued for hours to get their licences renewed, and those who had not started queuing in the morning were frequently turned away.
For a time, the online booking system offered a way to avoid the queues – until the Road Traffic Management Corporation (RTMC) rolled out its own online booking system and pulled the plug on the services The Online Company were offering.
New online system and a strike
The RTMC issued a press release on 16 August 2018 stating it would launch a national online booking platform for learner and driver’s licence tests, and licence renewals.
It would roll out to Gauteng first, and then expand to other parts of the country.
“The current process requires applicants to queue for between 140–180 minutes at a testing station. This process is also fraught with corruption as officials at the licensing centres have an incentive to withhold available bookings for lucrative payments from willing applicants,” the RTMC said.
“When it is launched later, the solution will benefit the public by promoting efficient service delivery, removing barriers to access, eliminating fraud and corruption, and optimising business operations.”
The goal was noble, but given the government’s track record with launching ICT systems the alarm bells should have been ringing.
Problems with the implementation of the online system were not helped by Tshwane’s decision to phase out walk-in clients entirely, and a strike at the Department of Transport.
Industrial action at the Driving Licence Card Account (DLCA) in Pretoria, a trading entity of the Department of Transport, resulted in a massive backlog of driver’s licences.
The strike started in August 2018, the same time the RTMC announced its plans for a national online booking system. Making matters worse was the DLCA was upgrading its systems.
“We had a strike that went on, but equally at that time we had an upgrade of the production system, and we had taken about three weeks to do that,” DLCA CEO Collins Letsoalo said.
All of this added up to a surge in demand for temporary driver’s licences, which when combined with the renewals process being upended resulted in a very poor customer experience.
In the past, if you had let your driver’s licence expire, you would apply for your temporary licence when you went in to renew your card.
Thanks to Tshwane’s decision to only allow online bookings for licence renewals, this is no longer possible.
When you went to the new NaTIS portal during December, for example, the Centurion testing station was not an option for booking your renewal.
Other stations presented as options included Akasia, Langlaagte, Randburg, and Krugersdorp – but appointments were only available in the second week of January.
Frustratingly, on the evening of 20 December after I had obtained my temporary licence, it was suddenly possible to book a renewal appointment at Centurion between 4 and 11 January.
None of the staff queried at the station on that same day could say when appointment slots would open up again.
Stories from the ground
While queuing outside the Centurion testing station, I heard stories from several motorists which affirmed that nearly everyone had experienced levels of bad service from Tshwane, the RTMC, or the Department of Transport.
Most of the people I asked had their licence expire months ago, and they were only coming to renew it now. Many of them didn’t know they had to book online until they arrived at the licensing centre.
A handful tried to book online, however, but no dates were available before their licenses expired.
A more upsetting story came from a man who was trying to replace all the documents he lost when his vehicle was stolen. He had been at Centurion the day before, but at 13:00 the power went off. When the electricity did not come back on after a while, staff went home.
No replacement bookings
Another issue with the system was that when licensing centre staff called the names of people who had made appointments to renew their licence, but had not shown up, no one was allowed to take their place.
This was thanks to the online booking portal, as the RTMC offered no way to cancel an appointment. The NaTIS site also only allows you to make one appointment at a time.
The City of Tshwane was asked to comment on this story, but did not respond by the time of publication. The spokesperson for the RTMC could not be reached for comment.