Another drowning, another promise

2013-11-27 00:00

ON Friday, last week, the body of Lihridayle Mthiyane was found in the vegetation near the Grimthorpe Road low-level bridge. He had been missing for six day, after being swept away at the Woodhouse Road low-level bridge.

Mthiyane (36) died heroically. Realising that his car was being swept off Woodhouse Bridge, he held the car door open so his friends could escape. Three young women escaped the danger, but the strong current swept him away. Were it not for such bravery, four lives would have been lost that day.

The drowning on this stretch of the Umsunduzi was not an isolated incident; it’s a relatively regular occurrence.

Whether out of genuine concern or perhaps shifting into first gear of election campaigning, the mayor of Msunduzi, Chris Ndlela, was among the search party last Friday, walking up and down the river trying to find Mthiyane’s body.

“We are sourcing funds to build a bridge. One more death is one more too many,” the mayor is reported to have said.

Since 2006, Mr Mayor, the Woodhouse Bridge has claimed five lives too many, with officials and their political principals promising to do something after every drowning. However, even before the victim’s body is cold in the ground, they have forgotten their promise.

These are the names of those who have perished on that bridge. In 2006: Andile Maroba (7), 2009: Sphesihle Mabaso (8), 2010: Swastika Hansraj (21), 2012: Asogan Govender (44). The deaths were reported by this newspaper and there are probably others who have died anonymously, the river their final resting place.

The mayor is right about one thing, a death on that bridge is a death too many, especially since it is something that could have been avoided so easily.

The failure to fix that bridge can hardly be attributed to a shortage of funds. The municipality has made a tidy sum selling land to developers. It had enough money to prioritise vanity projects, such as the tourism hub — now on its second contractor, the first having absconded with millions, leaving the work incomplete.

The latest reason given is that an environmental study has to be done — it’s been 15 years of excuses. The real reason for the failure to rebuild the bridge, which is a short-cut to a residential area and an access road to areas of employment for many, is simple: it’s not a priority.

It’s not a priority for the municipality and not for the people of the city.

Every year, we splash across our pages the story of another drowning, the sad faces of the relatives, and the following day we all move on.

Lieutenant Jack Haskins of the Pietermaritzburg K9 Search and Rescue Unit, who has performed many recoveries at the low-level bridge, has warned often that the bridge is dangerous.

The decision by the municipality to put up a boom gate was a lazy option, and an attempt to make someone else responsible for the drownings.

Furthermore, Pietermaritzburg has not yet rectified the apartheid-era town planning, which resulted in only one or two roads providing access to and from certain areas. Consequently, closing the bridge, which is a short-cut and eases congestion, is not a workable solution.

For 15 years, nothing has been done. Councillors have come and gone, and yet in that time bigger projects such as the Dr Chota Motala Road interchange have been completed.

The failure to build that bridge is not just an administrative one; it goes to the heart of the psyche of our society. We are a society that accepts mediocrity, we condone failure, and because we do not believe we deserve the best possible service from our public servants, we do not demand it. We limit our social activism to wage and service-delivery strikes. We allow politicians to patronise us with promises, knowing full well that we will never hold them to account. In a society that understands its role and its powers, and expects the very best, one death would have ended political and administrative careers in this municipality.

The people who need to account for their actions, or lack of them, are those who sit in the air-conditioned offices behind the impenetrable walls of the city hall.

Last week, it was Mthiyane who was swept off Woodhouse Bridge. Next time it could be you or me.

• Thamsanqa Magubane is a senior reporter at The Witness.

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