Ben Martins: Road less travelled

2013-04-07 10:00

Transport minister has the unenviable task of stopping the carnage on our roads and getting motorists to buy into e-tolling 

Dealing with the daily carnage on South Africa’s roads would be enough of a job to keep any transport minister busy 24/7.

But Ben Martins not only had to try to bring down the appalling 40-a-day death toll on our roads.

He also has the unenviable task of dealing with the controversial e-tolling mess that has put government on a collision course with Gauteng’s motorists.

And this past Easter weekend, Martins has been a busy man encouraging motorists to drive safely.

Road carnage is worse around peak periods such as the Easter and December holidays.

Although the statistics for this year will be released only tomorrow, early indications are that fewer deaths were recorded this year.

The figures are expected to be released next week and are likely to be less than the 171 road deaths last year.

But one road death is one too many as Martins and his officials are continuing to fight a losing battle against road carnages.

Martins sees the yearly road death toll as one of the major problems facing the country and says his department is committed to halving the fatalities by 2020.

The former Umkhonto weSizwe operative comes across as a man who lives with contradictions.

As an avowed communist of many years, he sees nothing wrong in championing the tolling of Gauteng’s freeways, even though his critics see the move as tantamount to privatising public roads.

They say this will mean those without money won’t use the freeways.

Martins says e-tolling, which is being opposed by Cosatu, other civil society groups and motorists alike, is inevitable for government to rope in private investment to finance major infrastructure programmes.

“The infrastructure remains the property of the state. We have an obligation to ensure our roads are up to standard and compare to the best in the world.

“Let me be frank. If we were to leave our roads to deteriorate ... there’s a cost involved there. They have a material impact on vehicle tyres and the mechanics of cars. All those are costs. People using the roads would be the first to say the roads are going to the dogs.

“The use of the roads has tax implications. We need to find money from somewhere,” he says.

He denies that tolling is privatisation or that it will keep the poor off the freeways, citing exemptions given to public transport as an example of how the government has tried to ease their lot.

As the transport minister, Martins believes in leading by example.

He says his own “German car” – a Chicco he bought in 1995, and which he uses when he visits family in his native township of Alexandra and Pietermaritzburg – is tagged, even though it spends most of the year in Cape Town.

Financing the roads by raising loans helps the SA National Roads Agency Limited to free up funds for the refurbishment of rural roads.

“We don’t have to apologise for having refurbished the (Nkandla) road. We have to ensure that the infrastructure in rural areas also compares to the best possible. It can’t be that we have the best in Joburg and Cape Town city centres,” he says.

Some suggest that Martins’ appointment as transport minister was a “poisoned chalice” as e-tolling was bound to put him on a collision course with Gauteng residents.

Their anger at the government was palpable at recent public hearings on tariffs.

Martins had received more than a 11 000 comments on e-tolling.

E-tolling legislation is still winding its way through Parliament.

However, the 56-year-old says there’s more to the transport portfolio than tolling.

It also includes rail, air and sea transport, and has 12 agencies falling under it.

Beside, he says one of his tough tasks during his time in Parliament was to chair the home affairs portfolio committee at a time when the department was notorious for being in a shambles.

It eventually was turned around.

“The skills that people bring to work will assist them. That will always stand you in good stead. I don’t see the department as a poisoned chalice,” he says.

His first order of business when he took office was to talk to stakeholders in his portfolio and “this has enabled us to acquire an even much broader understanding of the transport mandate”.

During the e-tolls hearing, people lamented the absence of a viable public transport system.

Martins reckons there’s enough public transport to ferry people around.

“The introduction of the Gautrain in Gauteng marked a turning point in South Africa’s public transport history.

“But we need to do more work in the area of Metrorail.

The Passenger Rail Agency of SA’s new rolling stock programme will see us pumping billions into the revitalisation of the passenger rail system, which has been a subject of massive underinvestment in the past 50 years.

“We believe that this monumental investment will go a long way towards ensuring that our people travel in decent, efficient, safe and reliable trains,” he said.

One would have expected an artist like Martins to be heading the arts and culture portfolio.

After all, he has published two poetry anthologies and a third is due out soon.

In addition, his paintings and sculptures have been exhibited at home, in Canada, the US and Australia.

His paintings and books are published under the names Dikobe or Dikobe wa Mogale.

His graphic drawing depicting the death of Steve Biko in detention is part of a gallery collection at the University of Natal, where he read for his bachelor’s degree.

But he says he has always found time to produce art despite his political and administrative work.

A few facts about Dikobe Ben Martins

Biographical information

» Dikobe Ben Martins was born in 1956 in Alexandra township, north of Johannesburg.

» Prior to his appointment as transport minister in June last year, Martin served as deputy minister of public enterprises. He has been an MP since 1994.

In the mid-1980s and early 1990s, he published two volumes of poetry, Baptism of Fire and Prison Poems.

According to SA History Online, Martins produced the famous poster that was distributed at Black Consciousness Movement leader Steve Biko’s funeral.

Here is an excerpt from the poem “Baptism of Fire”

“the time has come

to strike and parry

deadly blows as we

make a final stand

digging heels

into the red flesh

of ancestral soil


iron sharpens iron

into a baptism of fire”

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