S’bu needs antidote to poisoned chalice

SA’s new transport minister, S’bu Ndebele, certainly has his work cut out for him. His three predecessors, Mac Maharaj, Dullah Omar and Jeff Radebe, have bequeathed him a slice of chaos that will require nerves of steel and an absolute commitment to rectify if we are to see improved road safety

The rot started in about 1996 when the previous learner driver instructor’s test was replaced by the current one. Before 1996, people wanting to get an instructor’s permit had to book off a whole day once a year. During that day, not only did they have to demonstrate an exemplary standard of driving ability, but also their ability to instruct, usually with an obstinate and uncooperative licensing official in the passenger seat as the ‘pupil’. Among other tests, they were subjected to a verbal grilling on instruction, K53 and the Road Traffic Act by a panel of examiners. Only the toughest passed. But after 1996, unqualified pirate instructors flooded the market, and the rot soon spread to licensing as a whole. Standard inspections of testing stations evaporated, and corruption ate the core out of this critical function. Enforcement that focused on revenue, rather than safety, caused the licensing disaster to translate into a doubling of one’s road death risk since 1998. All the while, the few remaining talented individuals in the Department of Transport departed for greener pastures, driven away by incompetent management and a strategic vacuum. The consequence was that policy execution slowed to a crawl. The gathering and interpretation of road safety data all but collapsed, meaning that we haven’t had an accurate picture of what’s happening on our roads for 10 years.

For reasons I’ve discussed in a previous column, South Africa’s road infrastructure is now in dire straits. The cost to the motorist of the government’s incompetence in this regard has yet to be counted. Although our personal and company taxation rates have come down in the last few years, they are being systematically augmented by stealth taxes like the eNaTIS transaction fee, road tolls, and non-transport fees such as sky-high Eskom price hikes, until the real bill for being a South African citizen is starting to look like it might be higher than it used to be under the Nats.

And finally, public transport never made it onto the radar in any meaningful way under previous transport ministers, save for recent projects like the Gautrain, which simply isn’t a realistic anti-traffic solution. The projections for Gautrain ridership are highly speculative, and although annual operating revenues are projected, nobody has translated them into an actual ticket price. Meanwhile, the taxi industry is holding a gun to the president’s head, and is likely to pull the trigger if any moves which threaten its monopoly of deathtraps are made (like bus rapid transit). So yes, S’bu will need a pocketful of antidote to the poisoned chalice he’s been handed. He will be lauded if he succeeds, and I for one hope he does – the country can’t afford yet another seat-warmer in this vital portfolio.


Rob Handfield-Jones has spent 20 years indulging his three passions: vehicles, road safety and writing. He heads up driving.co.za, a company which offers training in economical and safe driving.

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