« In The Congo - Strategies | Main | Let The Words Speak For Themselves »

Jo'Burg Days: The Fast Lane Experiment

Around 15,000 people die each year in road accidents in South Africa. Unroadworthy ‘combi’ buses and taxis, driven by unlicensed black drivers, cause many of these deaths. Combis, built to carry the driver and eight passengers, habitually carry from twelve to sixteen. When stopped at roadblocks, police find vehicles without brakes, headlights, wipers, and – occasionally, a steering wheel. A large shifting spanner is used instead.

Barbara Durlacher paints a frightening word-picture of traffic chaos.

Do read more of Barbara's varied and ever-interesting articles by clicking on Jo'burg Days in the menu on this page.

We’ve been enduring heatwave conditions for the past few weeks in Johannesburg and - except for a five-minute storm the previous week - no real rain since April. The gardens are suffering, as we all are, and as it’s unusual for South African houses to have air-conditioning [or central heating], fans hum all night. "Light showers" are predicted for the Eastern and Northern Free State within the next couple of days, but whether the prevailing winds will blow anything this way remains to be seen, it’d be great if it rained all week.

Driving is an absolute penance, grilled by the sun while traffic moves at snail's pace and the unsynchronized robots [traffic lights to more enlightened] turn red at every block. And now we have ‘the fast-lane experiment’.

As you know, South Africans drive on the left. Latest figures from SA car manufacturers show six-monthly sales at an all time high of 55,000 a month. In the rural areas, lack of public transport makes it essential to have a car. However, many of the blacks are illiterate and have a deep aversion to, or ignorance of, the necessity for complying with regulations and vehicle examinations, and seldom have valid driving licenses. It’s a simple matter for anybody who can scrape together a few thousand rands to buy an old 'banger' and get on the roads. In the cities, thousands of office workers need transport, as, for many reasons, metropolitan trains and bus services have deteriorated to virtual non-existence. Reluctance to take decisive action, bureaucratic delays and inefficiency compound the problem.

A frighteningly large percentage of drivers are unlicensed and their vehicles are unregistered. We have an high accident rate in the region of 15,000 deaths a year. Unroadworthy ‘combi’ buses and taxis, driven by unlicensed black drivers, cause many of these deaths. Combis, built to carry the driver and eight passengers, habitually carry from twelve to sixteen. When stopped at roadblocks, police find vehicles without brakes, headlights, wipers, and – occasionally, a steering wheel. A large shifting spanner is used instead.

Johannesburg salaries are high in comparison with the rest of the country, and, like any large city, it attracts jobseekers. Housing is expensive, so the lower-paid workers live in the satellite towns, and those who can afford to, buy a car. Thirty years ago, when the motorway between Johannesburg and Pretoria [the administrative capital] was built, there was no indication that traffic density would swell to the present 600 000 commuters. Daily traffic jams and holdups on this 60 kms stretch of highway, lasting for hours, create enormous frustration, delays, and loss of business. The ultimate effect on the economy is serious, and big business has demanded a solution.

So, it was proposed that for five days the fast right-hand lane of the double carriage motorway would be reserved for combi taxis and multiple occupancy cars. Maybe this would ease congestion, stop the taxis speeding, and reduce accidents, as well as curbing the taxi driver’s dangerous habit of hogging the extreme left-hand emergency lane, which they regard as their own. Not unexpectedly, the result has been chaos, with Pretoria commuters arriving in Johannesburg up to two hours late, and frustration, road rage and thousands of litres of petrol wasted by vehicles idling in the burning sun.

Then, guess what? On Friday, taxi drivers called a lightning strike, blocking major routes all over the country, burning tyres and rolling rocks across intersections. Brandishing ‘traditional weapons’ [although many were found to be carrying firearms] drunken men intimidated luckless drivers, threatening to overturn and burn cars if they encountered opposition. They were on their way to the Union Buildings to protest against the “Taxi Recapitalization” scheme. This is an attempt to remove unroadworthy vehicles and give the owners R50,000 towards the purchase of new, 32-passenger mini-buses. Great indignation, as the owners claim this is too little in relation to the price of the new vehicles. Police were called out, rubber bullets were fired, people were injured, and it seemed as if parts of South Africa were right back to the ‘bad’ old days of civil insurrection.

So here the matter rests, and the ‘multiple passenger occupancy’ lane has proved a resounding failure. The taxi drivers will probably bully their way into receiving a bigger allowance and the poor commuters are left to endure. How many people will consider working from home; moving to a small town, or emigration; and how many will drop into the nearest watering hole for a few quick beers before they reluctantly tackle that nightmare journey again, thus swelling the accident figures even more?

Life in Johannesburg has changed radically since 1994; the only redeeming features are the attractive new office parks and the magnificent 80 ft jacarandas in full bloom in the avenues and gardens, where vibrant bougainvillea interweaves orange, purple and red tendrils through the mauve branches. This is a beautiful month if the weather is kind.

Categories

Creative Commons License
This website is licensed under a Creative Commons License.