A quango in a roadside quagmire

2008-05-31 00:00

South Africa is a quango paradise. There are the new state-appointed youth, gender and human rights offices, set up more as private feeding troughs for African National Congress favourites than to actually accomplish something.

Similarly there is the South African National Roads Agency (Sanral), a parking place for dead minds established by Parliament in 1998 as a statutory agency with commercial goals. As one might expect, it is hopelessly confused about what it should actually do — improving the lives of South Africans is one of its ambitious but vague goals — and how.

Some 14 000 people die on the roads each year, which is one of the worst road accident fatality rates in the world. So one might think there would be much for the people at Sanral to do, drawing on best practice from around the world. They could work on campaigns to protect pedestrians, the most vulnerable of road users and a group disproportionately represented in traffic accidents. They perhaps could develop technology to be installed at toll plazas to screen out the estimated 200 000 unlicensed drivers that clog the highways.

Nah, all too difficult.

They could ensure that legislation prohibiting garish billboards from despoiling the countryside and distracting one’s attention on national highways is implemented. Maybe they could keep verges cut and litter free, and reduce the roadside clutter of pointless signage.

Nah, all too mundane.

They could act as a political lobby to mobilise support and resources for improving the potholed secondary road system that in places has made rural travel exceptionally dangerous. They could agitate against using traffic police as revenue gatherers for depleted municipal and provincial coffers, rather than dealing with moving offences, unroadworthy vehicles and the disproportionate number of road deaths caused by taxis.

Nah, all too provocative.

One can picture it. The great minds of Sanral sit around and cogitate. There must be something they can do to justify paying themselves fat salaries and nice annual Christmas bonuses.

“Got it!” the little weasel in the corner shouts triumphantly. “Let’s outlaw these little roadside shrines that the loved ones of accident victims are sticking up alongside the roads. They look so tacky and they give tourists to South Africa the unfortunate impression that our roads are dangerous. Can’t have that.”

So that is what Sanral is proposing to do. The shrines are “distracting and messy”, apparently far worse than that neon McDonald’s sign or that giant billboard, or the fact that almost without exception, South African motorists think that drive time is an appropriate moment to catch up on cellphone calls.

The Sanral drones are not heartless, you understand. You can have your little wreath-shrouded whitewashed cross for a week or two but then it will be removed. You can then plant a tree in the vicinity, if it does not in any way obstruct the view of drivers, since that might cause yet another accident.

On the face of it, there is nothing wrong with having trees instead of crosses. Preferable even, since the sad little parade of shrines that one sees through the windscreen as one drives on any major road is undoubtedly jarring and depressing.

That, though, is the whole point. Research elsewhere in the world has shown that car wrecks put on prominent display at accident black spots as a cautionary measure markedly cut the accident toll. The bleak roadside shrines achieve the same thing.

The real problem is that this means acknowledging and drawing attention to road fatalities, yet another of the problems that makes life nasty, brutish and short in South Africa. Whether it is HIV/Aids, murder, or incinerating random refugees, the response favoured by officialdom in this country is one of denial. Crisis? What crisis?

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