Pothole payment

2008-08-25 00:00

By its ruling in the matter of the cyclist who was severely injured when he tried to avoid a pothole on a public road, the Constitutional Court may have set a precedent that will be widely welcomed. Having reflected on the case and on the findings of first the KwaZulu-Natal High Court and then the Supreme Court of Appeal, Concourt has, with duly judicious balance, determined that while the cyclist himself has a degree of responsibility for what happened, the bulk of the blame rests with the provincial authorities. The pothole had been there for a very long time and had grown dangerously large, yet nothing had been done either to erect warning signs or to repair the road. The officials responsible for inspection and repair had therefore been negligent and the province must pay.

Perhaps one should not hope for too much from this ruling. The simple erection of a warning sign might have been enough to deflect blame, and the country is now criss-crossed with roads where putting up warnings is obviously an easier option than repairing the surface. All the same, the ruling may send a shiver of apprehension through many a bureaucratic office. The implication is that government agencies do have a responsibility to maintain the public infrastructure and that negligence can be costly.

The general public, on the other hand, may feel a small thrill of satisfaction. Potholed roads are not the only manifestation of negligence and incompetence in the public service. Failed traffic lights make intersections hazardous. Streets are dark and dangerous because too many streetlights are out. Water and electricity supplies have become unreliable. If the courts now hold officials legally accountable for the consequences of its own inefficiency it will be a significant step towards empowering ordinary people to demand effective public services.

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