In the Eye of the Beholder

In July of 2005, the Road Traffic Management Corporation reported that, during the 2003-2004 crash statistics’ reporting period, more people died on South African roads each day (one every 48 minutes) than people were killed in Iraq, an acknowledged war zone.

Historically, bad road conditions have only been responsible for roughly 5% of our accidents; human error, irresponsible and drunken driving have been said to cause far more bodily annihilation than poor road conditions.

The percentage of accidents for which bad road conditions are directly responsible, has leapt through 10% and is heading for 15%, Gary Ronald of the AASA, reported. As a result, the AA has begun a campaign to encourage road users to SMS the AA with information about poor road conditions. Potholes, missing traffic signs and flooding are notable concerns.

Theirs is not the only campaign of this nature. Whether they succeed in galvanising municipalities, provinces and highway management consultants into speedier and moreĀ  Delivery of cars after crash from the USA competent repair action, is debatable.

The authorities must accept that poor road conditions not only affect crashes, but also cause considerable congestion, poor public-transport access and contribute significantly to the cost of vehicle maintenance. All of which directly affects people in all economic categories; their lives and their deaths.

Strategic objective (Department of Transport’s 2000 – 2005 The Road to Safety document)

In order to realise the mission, an equally clear and simple strategic objective is required. We have set this objective as being:”To reduce crashes, deaths and injuries on South Africa’s roads by 5% year-on-year until the year 2005 – at a saving to the economy of R770 million per annum – and then, based on the strengthened institutional platform created, by at least 10% year-on-year until the year 2009.”The targets have been set in carefully separated stages to take realistic account of the constraints still facing us in the current phase of fundamental restructuring of road traffic safety management. This restructuring work lies at the heart of The Road to Safety.In 2005 we will thoroughly review the emerging statistical trends and, if these trends are as positive as we hope, recommit ourselves to the more ambitious target of 10% (or, if justified by progress, consider setting a higher target).

Ouch! Eina! And Eish! Enough said…

Even the Minister of Transport had the grace to mention, in a message on the DoT website, ironically headed: ‘Taking the road to Safety’ that ‘there are serious disparities in road conditions, nationally’.

Management and delivery

It is commonly considered politically correct to blame the previous regime for the state of our roads. Over a decade has passed since the newly victorious entered (left, through ballot box) with full knowledge that service delivery had not addressed the entire population for over a century and had been seriously diminished during the prior decade, as the ruling party non-comrades redirected their focus towards the more personal issue of coping on reduced income.

This is underscored by the state of the inherited rail system. Where once the rail service was quite phenomenal (envisioned by Rhodes in his dream of a monopoly from ‘Cape to Cairo’) branch lines and outlying stations were closed down in the late ’80s – declared unprofitable – in a country where an independent public transport/taxi industry was becoming a noticeable force.

Assets that are not adequately maintained will very soon become liabilities – a rule of life – just as first-time homeowners discover that their bond payments are negligible when compared to the cost of maintaining and improving their home over the life of its bond. And like bond interest, negligence compounds, until ‘renovation’ becomes virtually unaffordable. It follows that the budget necessary to maintain and expand South Africa’s once-excellent road structure is now exorbitant.

Other factors, like the refusal by many, to pay for services, tax evasion of many working in informal-sector industries (crime and drug dealing, for instance), the migration of people to our cities (and a hybridised shack-dwelling lifestyle) and the high rate of unemployment, have made it even more difficult to restore what has now been neglected for at least two decades.

Now that the penny seems to have dropped, so has its value and maintenance costs have soared.

Public evolution

Moreover, as jobs have become more available to a wider market and the economy develops, so those who once might never have expected to travel further from home than their closest town, have become frequent and seasoned travellers. Large numbers have afforded their own vehicles and enjoy complete freedom of movement.

Sanctions ensured that instruments of industry, such as ports, freight transport and the other trappings of healthy economies, became fairly unprofitable. Not only those aboard the previous gravy train paid the price of sanctions. Despite surges in the economy, the technological era, an ultra-just constitution and definitive labour laws have marginalized ordinary people.

It was no secret that virtually every sphere of public business was bound to need urgent regeneration, come 1994. It is hardly surprising that our roads have taken such a beating, now that more vehicles are pounding past us, more times, on a daily basis.

First prize will surely go to a plan that incorporates most of what South Africa urgently needs to set her people free.

Ditches to nowhere

Across the sea, America has a similar history to ours – vast tracts of land colonised by pasty, white foreigners, who credited the native Americans and their own slaves, with debatably fewer rights than those awarded to their South African counterparts.

There, Franklin D Roosevelt, is famed for his Five Year Plan. On the return of many thousand troops from World War I, unemployment and hardship were rife as America sank into a post-war recession. His plan ensured that jobs, mainly requiring unskilled labour, were available for returning troops.

They didn’t pay much, but they did prevent families from starving and labourers moved to outlying and eventually, rural areas, as they followed the projects initiated, creating a magnificent infrastructure for the USA.

Roosevelt’s Five Year Plan opened up areas where no thinking person would previously have chosen to live and presented new, unforeseen opportunities for necessary service industries and businesses.

As projects were completed, so the state was slowly relieved of the salary burden. Individuals bought land and established entire communities.

Gold rush

South Africans will see the similarity to our colonial past, with gold and diamonds the local incentive. Despite the fact that the colonial and Apartheid eras are so criticised, they did achieve for South Africa many of those features that modern society considers essential to well being – up to a point.

There appears to be an incentive to repeat the American strategy in South Africa. It has, in fact, been introduced in at least one province already, to a lesser degree. In KZN, rural people, many female breadwinners, are employed by the state to keep rural roads passable: fill in potholes, cut grass and alert the authorities to essential, urgent, major repairs after extreme weather conditions.

This presently only ensures that some rural families have regular, if meagre, income. But it works! To complete bigger projects, it only needs to work better. The more jobs that are made available in rural areas, the more incentive there is for city ‘squatters’ to return to those areas.

The strategy could provide countless benefits, in the shape of thriving communities that would need more shops, services and facilities.


South Africa has, altogether, a road network of some 65 000km. The South African National Road’s Agency Limited (SANRAL) is mandated is to “develop, maintain and manage South Africa’s 7 200 km national road network comprising over R30 billion in assets, excluding land”.

In September 2005, SANRAL reported a ‘spend’ of R1.2 billion for maintaining the national road network during the 2004/2005 financial year. Revenue had grown from R1.3 billion to R2.2 billion profit stood at R406 million. SANRAL’s annual report stated that the road network had grown by 1 560km (77% of which were non-toll roads) during that period, to a total of 10 880km.

When the agency was formed in 1998, the intention of DoT was to decrease its annual Treasury subsidy until it became self-supporting; the entire point being that it should function as a private entity, despite its responsibility to report to the Minister of Transport, its owner and sole shareholder.

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