Thursday, January 05, 2006

Road to Hell 

Happy new year. Yes thanks, you? Always nice to come back to work though isn’t it? Bollocks.

South Africa is having a relatively good festive season on the roads – only 1162 people killed in December, which is lower than usual. We have a pretty poor road safety record at the best of times – bribe-able police, poorly maintained vehicles with no regular checks on roadworthiness, gym bunnies in huge bloody 2 ton 4x4s, and a pretty lax attitude to the rules of the road make for an entertaining time.

This time of the year, though the roads are clogged with various seasonal migrations. Half of Johannesburg hops in the bakkie or the BMW and bombs it down the N1 to the Cape for the Christmas break. At the same time, the Xhosa population of Cape Town hops into an overloaded Hi-Ace and heads for the Eastern Cape. Chuck in a seasonal amount of drinking, and life gets interesting.

What prompted this rant, though, is not the death statistics or the driving, both of which are appalling, it’s the number plates. South Africa has two types of speed camera, which are both proliferating. The easy ones are fixed, so you learn where they are, and everyone slows down for them. Then the tourists run into your rear end. The tricky ones are on tripods, and usually manned by a well-fed cop sitting in a shady spot, and either soliciting Christmas bonus contributions or sending you love letters in the post later. The problem with these is that you cannot learn where they are. The problem if you are coming on holiday to the Cape from the Highveld, is that you don’t know where to look for either.

There is a solution: the number plates. You take them off for the holidays. Simple. The chances of a policeman pulling you over are pretty small, given the other more lucrative demands on his time, and even if he does, the fine is something like R150. Compared with R400 for doing 86 in a 60km/h zone (ask me how I know), this seems very reasonable. This holiday season, I have seen an amazing number of cars with no plates, often just no front ones, as cameras get you from the front in SA.

As for the bribe-able policemen, here’s how it works. I went up to a game lodge in the Kruger Park for a meeting last month (another story), and when we got there, we discovered that two of our number had been pulled over on the long, straight, deserted 80km/h stretch up to the gate. One had a conversation that went something like this:
“You were doing 104, that’s a R500 fine.”
“Where do I pay?”
“You pay in Mpumalanga, but you have to pay up here, not back in Joburg.” (His car had Gauteng plates on)
“That’s OK, I can post it.”
“If you trust the post.”
“Well, I’ll have to take the chance.”
This peculiarly South African dance went on like this for a while, an amiable white guy and a streetwise career law enforcer, until the cop got bored and sent him off with a smile and a warning.

The second guy to get stopped had a little less patience and bonhomie:
”Look at the camera, that’s a R500 fine.”
“Can I pay a fine now?”
“Sure: R100.”
“Here you go.”
“Have a nice day sir.”
How we laughed over dinner.

It’s the broken windows theory, or zero tolerance, or whatever you want to call it. As long as there are cars that are clearly illegal driving around - whether due to their bald tyres or lack of plates - as long as the intervention of a traffic cop can be dealt with cheaply, then the car jackings, burglaries and rapes continue unstaunched.

I have written before about how the healthy disrespect for the rules means that some things get done and get done faster, and has bred a nation that ‘makes a plan’ rather than dithering, but this is a fuck up. 1162 shattered families, 1162 small piles of unopened Christmas presents sitting in a corner is too great a price to play for an “African” entrepreneurial culture.

Happy new year.

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