Road to nowhere

2010-08-24 00:00

IN a history class during my senior high school year in the Elandskop area of Vulindlela, a debate ensued between the teacher and the pupils concerning the development and construction of tarred roads in the area.

At the time a road to the Sevontein Prison, which branches off the main road to Bulwer running through the area, was being tarred.

When one of the pupils from the eMafakatini area in Elandskop, an area which has at least 15 kilometres of gravel road and which also branches off the Bulwer road, asked why the road to their area was not being tarred, the teacher jokingly responded: “There is no [investment] in the eMafakatini area, whereas in Sevontein, they have a prison and hence they are receiving a tarred road.”

More than 10 years later, the road to the eMafakatini area remains a gravel one with no prospects of it being upgraded. People living in the area seem to have accepted its condition.

Last month, I was reminded of that high school debate when the Tlakgameng community in the North West brought the district to a standstill demanding the construction of a tar road to connect them to other areas.

Reports on the unrest in the area revealed that over 9 000 children were not attending school as the approximately 19 schools had been closed indefinitely and that three classrooms and a staff room belonging to the local Sebitlwane High School had been set alight.

This was apparently not the first time that the community had gone on the rampage demanding that the 22-kilometre road between Tlakgameng and Ganyesa be tarred.

After their numerous calls to their provincial Department of Transport went unanswered, the residents decided to vent their anger by shutting down the school and destroying public property.

Charles Raseala, a spokesperson for the Department of Education in the province, described the residents’ frustration, noting that the Department of Transport had promised to build the road some time ago but the promise had not been kept.

“Now the residents feel justified in venting their frustrations on any government property,” he said.

”Those people are insane,” is probably how many others reacted to the incident.

In the face of it would seem insane to the unaffected observer, but for someone who has had to contend with the hardship of living in areas where roads are either gravel or dirt, and often just mud, the reaction of the community is anything but insane.

The plight experienced by communities in the North West is one experienced by many rural communities in this province who tend to be put on the back burner when it comes to development or in gaining access to the most basic of services.

The absence of a tar road represents more serious issues than simply being able to enjoy a smooth drive. It represents a lack of development, and a lack of investment and employment opportunities.

Moreover, the road conditions are hazardous and at times they become unusable. In winter, the roads are dusty and travelling along them you are powdered brown. In summer, it rains and the roads turn to mud, and travelling them can become a life- threatening experience.

One of the first impacts of such conditions is on commuters. Transport is scarce because few people are willing to risk their vehicles by travelling on gravel or muddy roads. Those who are willing to risk it tend to ask for more money to compensate for the trip and the accompanying risk.

Emergency vehicles, such as ambulances, face an insurmountable task when they go to pick up a sick person because the poor conditions make the transporting of a patient from that area a dangerous business.

In Elandskop, road development seems to have come to a standstill, according to a resident. To date, the area has one tarred road, which is the main Bulwer road, and the only tarred road coming off the main road is the Sevontein Prison road.

A local resident, Mbuso Nyawose, said the issue represents a much bigger problem for the area: the lack of development.

“There is no investment because no one can see any investment opportunities because they cannot gain access to the area as there are no roads. This in turns stifles employment opportunities and perpetuates the cycle of poverty within the rural communities.”

The municipal councillor in the area, Thinasonke Ntombela, agreed that there is a great need for a tarred road in the area. “We brought the issue up with the municipality, which promised to attend to the situation.”

“They even drew the design plan, but those plans were destroyed by the municipality’s financial crisis.”

He said they are now approaching the provincial government to assist with the construction of the roads.

Simphiwe Nkosi, a senior general manager of the road infrastructure operations at the Department of Transport, said that when it came to requests for building roads he estimates that 80% of those requests are for roads to be tarred.

“The priority of the department is firstly to build access roads where there are no roads to speak of.”

Nkosi said that even when considering constructing a tarred road there are various factors that have to be taken into account: “The mandate of the department is to build 350 kilometres of access roads every year, so if there is a request for a tarred road, we first have to look at conditions such as the number of people who use that particular road and also the investment opportunities that are available.”

While the battle for a tar road in a remote part of North West rages on, I am reminded of that high school debate and the subsequent lack of development in the Elandskop area. The Tlakgameng community could have a long wait.

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