I found myself racing through “what if” scenarios and obsessively wondering what happens next. Admittedly I have the “crazy” gene pretty bad and, despite being a therapy regular, catastrophizing is a common challenge for someone with anxiety disorder (which is very different from worry, stress or ad hoc situational anxiety, all of which often gets lumped together due to a chronic misunderstanding of mental health in our South African context). The outcome of this mental health sidebar was “wondering what happens next” translated to me being pretty concerned I would be arrested. If you get an official letter about a fine, and you miss the deadline, then that seems pretty bad. I had a bunch of half truths and forgotten conversations about “when a warrant is issued”; “how court summons works”; “does one get a summons to go to court?” and something about “doesn’t a policeman or woman need to be wearing a hat or else the fine is invalid” floating around my head. More the stuff of braai-side conversation then evidence-based truth. So I resorted to my natural port of call: Google to find out what I could. I found a FAQ on Durban.gov which helps one understand that Metro Police in Durban are not SAPS, and found some contact details that I could have used (were I not an introvert that abhors talking on the phone) and are pretty good (although one needs to understand city planning’s metro zones and their boundaries to know which the appropriate office is to call, and there is always the fear of being lost in the call centre shuffle or the mists of emailing a city department). I also read some blogposts on mybroadband horror stories about criminal records resulting from traffic fines, which only served to drive my anxiety. I also found some payment sites that allow you to pay your fine online. “Brilliant”, I thought, that will sort out my problem. It didn’t. Despite saying this was a place one could pay Durban Metro Police fines, after entering in my reference number nothing came back. Perhaps they had already started the warrant process.
So I decided to be brave. I would go down to 16 Archie Gumede Place, Police Headquarters, and try to plead my case and pay my fine knowing full well it was likely I would be arrested on the spot. My fine was paid and I was walking out within three minutes. The reason it took that long was because I thought I would clear up some information about the fine process of Metro Police from source. This is how it works (according to the very friendly and accommodating Metro Police official, battling to hide back a chuckle at my panic):
- You get a small ticket, usually under your windscreen wiper, with the fine details, amount, where to pay it, and the due date.
- If you haven’t paid by the time the date comes around (usually 30 days from the date of the ticket issue), it triggers the next process, a “white letter”, which is the first official step to let you know you are now in the system and a process has kicked off.
- I got my fine on the 13th of February and the payment due date on the white letter was 7th April. Based on this, and that I should have received this letter on the 14th of March (30 days after the ticket), it would seem the window between the white letter and its payment due date is 25 days.
- If you haven’t paid your fine by the due date of the white letter, a blue letter is generated and posted to you. Apparently mine is one the way, although I can now ignore this as I have paid the fine. I’ll update on the timeframes when/if I receive it.
- If you do not make payment by the due date on the blue letter, a yellow summons is posted to you. This will also have a payment due date, and being a summons and not a letter, is when things are starting to get serious. It is also where my conversation got a little fuzzy and due to me holding up a growing line behind me in my chat with the teller. Admittedly I didn’t understand whether this was part a of the next point, or whether there is then another payment grace window in between. This will be something I will endeavour to find out from the municipality.
- Finally, you are served the yellow summons in person. Apparently at this point you are asked to sign it, and it will contain an absolute payment date and you’ll be issued with a court date. It would appear that the payment deadline will be quite before the court date, and if payment is then not made in time it automatically triggers an arrest warrant. You are then in risk of being arrested. You will also, on signing the summons, have to appear in court on the court date given, and missing this will also result in arrest. At court you will be required to explain why payment of the fine has not been made, and represent any extenuating circumstances concerning your case. I am not sure whether you can make any appeal against the fine before this point, apart from in the case that you were not driving the car and want to push the fine onto somebody else (and who knows what happens if you follow this procedure). The other point that I am not clear on is whether you would actually be arrested if payment isn’t made by the date on the summons, or whether the arrest warrant would only kick in after your court appearance.
With Durban Answers we are building a platform to direct people to information, and resources and tools to help them act once informed, to open access to being an active citizen involved in the city. As explained by OpenUp, ‘Citizens become active and take action to improve their lives when they are informed and empowered to effect change’. This is democracy in action and we believe has the chance to result in real and sustainable positive social change. My fairly detail-light instructions above about paying fines can start to be enhanced and corrected by Metro Police and other users, and updated when need be. We can add in the link to the various fine payment gateways that currently exist.
The final parting words of the most helpful official at Metro Police building was “You are safe until you sign something”. I must add the disclaimer that the above information was based on notes I made on my phone during one conversation, and so I am sure it needs to be verified and refined a little. In fact, this would be a useful feature to add to the platform would be a green tick for where an answer has been verified by the relevant authority. An important point is that we don’t intend to create a duplicate of information, nor do we want to create a duplicate of the services offered by the city nor a new payment gateway to rival those that exist. What we care about is the space between government and citizens, and the organisations, businesses, media, and CSOs that are trying to address that gap, to work towards a future community that cares about each other and creating an environment to live work and play together.
Would I expect most people to go through this level of stress based on this experience as I did? I certainly hope not. I am sure many people are well aware of the process, the levels of warnings and letters, and other relevant information like being able to pay your fine online. This (purposefully pithy) experience does frame something that is more serious, around people being able to access information, guides and toolkits about how to be a citizen in our city. How does one access information, how can one find a process that others have follow so that we are not always starting in the dark and having to work it out from scratch.
I am aware my context is anomalous and my situation is one of privilege. But it does make me wonder how many people daily feel bewildered or lost or confused or even indifferent about something simple like paying a fine in the city because of lack of access to information or a link to someone who has walked that road before and can provide knowledge of experience. What about those with less money, less internet, less smartphone, less access to friends within the city or who are lawyers? Let’s find out what information it is that stops them from have equal access to opportunity to engage in and be a citizen in the city, and let’s answer that need together. For Durban, by Durban.