After being tipped off by a man who had previously bought a “grey” car, the Independent on Saturday went undercover to investigate how these cars made it onto South African roads, and the cost to the country.
We visited three warehouses where these cars were kept after being released from the harbour, and before they made it to our roads. They were shipped from Japan, China and Singapore.
Official-looking papers with car details, including cargo number, warehousing information and shipping details, were in Asian languages.
The first warehouse visited was in South Beach, fronted by a car wash. Cars were parked behind the car wash.
Two young men were washing cars, and the reporter asked for the owner.
The owner told us: “People can only come here by appointment, because there is nothing that says we sell cars here. The only way we do business is that you have to be recommended by someone I know.”
The “recommender” called the owner, who then showed the team a few cars, among them a 2016 VW Polo 1.2 TSI and a couple of Toyotas.
“All you need is to pay the deposit of R15 000 cash then you can take the car home with you. I will take care of everything else,” the dealer said.
He said the VW Polo’s full price was R50 000. In a legitimate sale, its value is R170 000.
The dealer explained the process he claimed would make the car “legal”.
“I will give you this car with a foreign number plate, it is up to you whether you would like me to change it for you. With that, I will charge you R15 000 because it is a long process to change this yellow registration into South African.
"I will give you temporary papers that will have a name of another person that you will use, until I come back to you with a Botswana registration to use for two months. I work on getting a Lesotho registration, which will be easy to change to South African one. It costs money to make it faster,” he said.
The dealer also said that this car deal had to be done in cash and nothing must be paid through bank accounts.
“It is a simple transaction, no paperwork for you, no installment and we do not check credit status or even want to know whether you have a licence or not.”
Readings, such as mileage, on the dashboards were in an Asian language. The dealer said it could be changed to English.
A 38-year-old Durban man, who had previously bought a “grey” VW Polo, has found himself stuck with a “foreign” number plate car. He had ownership papers, with a name that seemed to be Chinese or Japanese.
“I was happy I found a good condition car, at a very cheap price. At the time, I did not care about anything else and it was my first car,” said the once-proud buyer.
He said the dealer had briefed him on what to say when he was stopped by police or traffic officers. He had to tell them he had borrowed the car from a friend for a day and to show them the papers with the Asian name.
“I did that a few times until, one night, police officers stopped me and told me the car I was driving was not supposed to be driven on South African roads. They threatened to take me in but I negotiated with him, and he and his partner decided to let me go,” he said.
Since that incident, he said, he did not feel comfortable driving the car.
He said he still used the “foreign” number plate because he could not pay more money to get it changed by his dealer.
At a second warehouse, South Africans were not allowed inside, and customers had to provide a passport to gain entry.
But a man in a security company uniform said: “They sell cars inside, these cars get delivered from the harbour. People from other countries come and buy them. They are cheap, in fact, a person can get a very nice and good condition car for R10 000. Unfortunately South African law does not allow us to buy them.”
The dealer at the second warehouse eventually allowed us into the warehouse from another entrance.
Inside, there were more than 50 cars. On inquiry, a 2008 Mercedes-Benz C200 was offered at R70 000, with a cash deposit of R20 000. This dealer said he could get a South African registration in less than a month, at no extra cost.
“Everything is included in the money you will pay for the car. All you need to do is give me the R20 000, then I arrange meetings with all the parties involved. It is faster here to get registration because we have lots of customers each week,” said the man.
The third place was a yard rather than a warehouse, and there were about 100 vehicles, including 14-ton curtain-sided trucks.
“There has been a growing demand for these trucks lately. People in logistics businesses seem to be needing them a lot,” said the dealer, who was either from Bangladesh or Pakistan.
He showed us a 5-Series BMW, valued at R1.6 million at a legitimate car dealership. The man offered to sell it for R400 000. The car was a left-hand drive (There are legal restrictions on these in South Africa), with a plush white leather interior.
Responding to our photographic evidence, Aseed Mthini, who is a BMW premium select manager, confirmed that the car was a real BMW, not a knock-off.