Number plate crisis: Where to from here?

MEDIOCRITY seems to be the order of the day in the Traffic Department of the Ministry of Public Works and Transport (MPWT).

The current crisis of number plates is yet another symptom of the infection in the Traffic Department and, to a large extent, typifies the entire public service work ethic in Lesotho.
When the same MPWT changed from red, manually-inscribed drivers’ licences to the Southern African Development Community (SADC) barcoded licences, a crisis ensued, which necessitated the renewal of temporary licences for more than a year.

The second crisis was the result of procurement logistics between the MPWT and their supplier. Many Basotho who used their temporary driving licences in the Republic of South Africa were fined while others put their jobs in jeopardy for using substandard temporary licences in contrast to those stated in the SADC Protocol on Transportation Communication and Meteorology.

The number plates are produced centrally in Maseru and this implies a bottleneck in production. The number plate crisis was not the first one of its kind but, rather, it has now become the norm.
For me, it was first time to experience this ordeal but I have seen a number of people being compelled to buy number plates from the Republic of South Africa because it is illegal to drive a vehicle there without number plates.

I must also emphasise that it is also illegal in Lesotho to procure number plates anywhere else than the MPWT. Surely motorists and the police know it is an offence to do otherwise but they are doing nothing to bring culprits to book.

After registering and paying for my number plates at Quthing on March 3, 2014, the registering clerk advised me to take the application form to Maseru to fast-track the process. Frankly, I cannot find anything so significant about number plates that warrants them being centrally-placed in Maseru as opposed to other services such as vehicle-testing done regionally in Mohale’s Hoek and Leribe?

If the number plates are supposed to be for the whole country, why should people who live, or frequently go to Maseru, have an advantage over those from the other nine districts?
When I went to the number plates unit in Maseru the following day, I saw a hand-written notice without a stamp or signature on the door indicating that there were no metal sheets.
Added to this, the door was locked. There was no information on when the metal sheets were expected to arrive or who should be consulted for further clarification. On the last week of March, I got a tip-off that the number plates were finally being made. I registered as number 117 at around 09:30hrs.

Unfortunately, I did not get them on that day. I went again after a week and I was number 73; this time it was before 08:00hrs. On that day there was yet another notice stating that the paint was out of stock.
In my view, the working hours have a bearing on this crisis. Generally, public servants are expected to be on duty for seven hours fifteen minutes a day. But, in most cases, they work for much less. The Traffic Department usually serves the public for only for five hours.

Until the early 2000s, there was only one vehicle-testing centre for the entire country at Ha Thetsane. When the computerisation of motor vehicles, otherwise known as NATIS, was introduced it was complemented by the construction of Ha Foso and Hlotse and Mohale’s Hoek testing stations respectively.

The NATIS is a data base mechanism; hence the rising number of vehicles registered annually is automatically reflected. Even if the NATIS operates in two districts, there must be monthly, quarterly and annual reports of registered vehicles. As a result, number plates centralisation can never produce any result other than a crisis.

Accepting the fact that number plate production is centralised and there is nothing we can do about it at the moment, the question becomes; why is the Department is not nipping the congestion in the bud?
Is it necessary to have people queuing when it is avoidable?

Since the production is done for all 10 districts, why can’t it be done proportionally and designed in such a way that people do not have to physically submit forms but can also use such methods such as emails or the internet? It can help reduce the amount of stationary wasted especially with the advent of global warming.

The manner in which the registration officers conduct their duties leaves a lot to be desired and shows that there is no performance appraisal by their human resources department and the Traffic Commissioner.
When people can queue at the Traffic Department before 08:00hrs, it means they expect to be serviced immediately after the offices are opened.
It follows, therefore, that registration officers should commence production of number plates from the first minute of their working hours. However, it is not clear what the officers will be doing between 08:00-09:00hrs. It is equally not clear how long officers take to clean their machines in the afternoon from 15:00-16:30hrs.

Surely two hours are lost every day without serving the public. In a week, 10 hours are lost and in a year 520 hours are lost. Working hours should be stated in an official notice stamped and signed by the relevant authority. Writing a notice on a flimsy paper by hand without authentic features and putting it on the door is a clear evidence of undermining the integrity of the people being served.

There is no single reason advanced by the Traffic Department officials that reasonably justifies why the public should accept inefficiency in services for which decent wages are paid. There has never been a time when Traffic Department staff has not been paid.

Like other government departments, the Traffic Department has seen many commissioners come and go. Admittedly, some of them have initiated organisational renewal in a bid to transform service delivery. However, the Traffic Department seems to be held by the forces of inertia as explained by Isaac Newtown’s Third Law of Motion. The only forces that can stop corruption and transform service delivery can be the public through civil society organisations and the responsible minister’s policy initiatives.

 Hlalele is a labour and environmental activist.

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