Georgina Guedes

Bridge collapse shows the best and worst of South Africa

2015-10-15 15:24

Georgina Guedes

So, that bridge collapsed, killed one person and snarled up the traffic around Sandton for a full 24 hours. And when a disaster happens in a country, the people of a nation (or, in this case a city) showed their true colours.

There was a great deal of empathy for the victims and their families, and a great deal of frustration at the traffic snarl-ups that resulted at just about the worst time of day for a national highway to be closed down.

How did this thing happen?

The City of Joburg has appointed independent engineers to investigate and report on the incident, but Murray & Roberts, the contractors responsible, have also said that they are trying to determine the cause of the collapse.

So far, we’ve heard that gusts of wind and a cement truck caused the bridge to come tumbling down. There were high winds yesterday – a tree in my garden toppled over – but even so, you would think that a bridge over a highway would have been built allowing for the possibility of some gusty weather. Or even the possibility of a crashing truck.

And then the social media machine got going, and rumours started flying. “It was thieves who stole some steel,” someone said. Of course, anything is possible, but this sounds to me like an attempt to tell that same old South African disaster story, rather than to reveal any hidden truth.

Public transport companies do their bit

Public transport companies all pulled together to do what they could to alleviate the traffic crisis. Putco, Metro and Gautrain buses all ran for free in the areas affected by the bridge collapse, and some offered free passage all the way to Soweto. Uber offered free passage to and from the Gautrain station in Sandton.

But then, someone misread that announcement, and thought the Gautrain would be running for free. So the Gautrain Twitter account had to correct that misapprehension. Which was a bit of a missed opportunity for positive publicity. “Only the buses are free” isn’t exactly the most sympathetic of post-national-disaster messaging.

Uber got it right though, offering free rides to the value of R250 (which gets you quite far) from Gautrain stations until 9pm on the night of the collapse. As publicity and appealing to national sentiment go, that ranks right up there with delivering boereworse for free in time for braais on Heritage Day.

A day we’ll all remember

As national disasters go, we got off pretty lightly. Two people died, tens of people were injured, and a day later, the traffic was pretty much back to normal (despite the holdup as they waited for Mayor Parks Tau to *officially* re-open the highway). Oh, and the Murray & Roberts share price took a battering.

It was good to see the sense of community among South Africans and the businesses that serve us – and while the threads of exactly what happened and who is responsible will be being unwound for a while yet, we can at least acknowledge that our emergency services and public figures did the right thing at the right time.

Now let’s work at keeping our bridges up. 

- Georgina Guedes is a freelance writer. You can follow @georginaguedes on Twitter.

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