Transport withers under Ndebele

Rob Handfield-Jones June 9, 2011

I try to avoid taking unnecessarily gratuitous pot-shots at the Minister of Transport and his lackeys. It’s just too easy. But there are limits, and when

road safety

Photo credit: UK Road Safety

Minister S’bu Ndebele perfunctorily claimed that the recently-launched Decade of Action Programme will “halve road deaths” and “end carnage on our roads”, he was setting himself up for ridicule.

Bluntly, road carnage does not start and stop as decreed by government functionaries – rather, it exists and blossoms due to long-term failure of those functionaries to implement policies to curb it. I have said many times that people will only drive as badly as their governments allow them to. In the UK and USA, they thus drive very well. In South Africa they drive like maniacs. It’s almost unarguable that the Minister is the actual cause of road carnage, not South Africa’s saviour from it. When he took over his current office, he inherited a right royal mess, but he also inherited numerous suggestions to solve the problem from several people who actually make a career out of road safety, myself included. I can’t talk for others, but one of my many contributions to the proceedings was to spend an hour of my time in Parliament, addressing the Portfolio Committee on Transport. During this address, I proposed five categories of intervention which would result in a rapid change in the road safety landscape at relatively low cost.

Political will

Now, the Chair of that committee was Jeremy Cronin who is currently the Deputy Minister of Transport. On that day, the 28th of May 2008, he responded that “…most of your proposal can be implemented without new regulation…” or words to that effect. In other words, he identified the key point without any prompting from me: South Africa has all the structures in place to introduce rapid improvements to road safety. All that is lacking is the application of thought, research and political will. What’s strange is that the Deputy Minister has the solutions at his fingertips, but the Minister himself, inexplicably, refuses to take advantage of this knowledge. The blame for the continued carnage on our roads therefore falls fairly and squarely on the Minister’s shoulders. Little wonder that his tenure resulted in 2011showing the single biggest year-on-year increase in the Easter road death toll in South Africa’s history.

This is not the first time the Minister has talked about halving road deaths, and he has previously claimed they will be halved by the middle of the current decade. This is despite the catastrophe of licensing, the cataclysm of roadworthiness, the epidemic of drunken driving and the mounds of rubble our roads are rapidly being reduced to. In truth, it is naive to hope that we could reduce road deaths from their current official level of about 15000 to 7500 in the next four years, because that would require fatality rates to achieve levels 25% lower than the all-time low which was achieved in 1998. The rate subsequently doubled by 2006, to which the DoT’s response was to stop making it public. I believe the fatality rate to probably have increased by another third since then.

Cutting the rate to 30% of its current level, which is about what would be required to yield a death toll of 7500, is currently unworkable in a mere four years, because there is no realistic plan to achieve it and no money either. Leaving aside the posturing and politicking, if someone put such a task on my desk as an entrepreneurial opportunity, I would reject it as impossible unless it came with a cheque for R10Bn to throw at the problem, cheap considering that traffic crashes cost the country approximately R100Bn per annum. Since the DoT has spent only approximately half of that amount on direct road safety development (ie., through public education, tweaks to the licensing system, improvement in enforcement, etc.) over the past 14 years, it is immediately clear that, all other considerations aside, road safety improvement is under-funded.

Advice

I’m not convinced the Minister actually knows any of this, and it’s arguable that he either isn’t being given good advice, or isn’t taking it before he stands up and speaks. A combination of both is perhaps the best explanation if one is to judge by the utterances on vehicle population made by his advisor, Themba Vundla, at a conference a couple of months ago, and the manner in which Ndebele apparently believes he can regulate road safety by decree. Even the Acting CEO of the RTMC, Collins Letsoalo, is getting in on things, having been quoted recently as saying that about three-quarters of all vehicles are unroadworthy. This is in contrast to the RTMC’s most recent official stats bundle which pegs the percentage at about 6%. The frequency with which the RTMC’s spokespeople invent statistics when they’re required to make a public statement is disturbing, and when the man running road safety doesn’t have a handle on things, it follows that his Minister won’t have either. This is a major contributor to Ndebele being regrettably lampoonable.

Through all of this there has been very little contribution from Jeremy Cronin in the two years since he took office. Considering that he’s the one political functionary in the DoT with a good working knowledge of road safety, one gains the distinct impression he’s being muzzled so as not to create accidental conflict by demonstrating how considerably better-informed he is than his boss.

The whole fracas must be viewed in the context of the mismanagement happening in other functions which fall under the Department of Transport, and the wholesale abuse of the DoT as a means to impose a raft of stealth taxes. Surely the time has now come for President Zuma to step in, divide road safety from the Department of Transport as a separate ministry and appoint Cronin as Minister of Road Safety? The next positive step would be to replace Ndebele with someone under whom transport in South Africa might regain direction after years of withering.

About Rob Handfield-Jones, the author

Rob's motto is "...cars, cars, cars..." and he's been a leading innovator in the field of driving skills training since 1989. Away from the serious stuff, Rob enjoys working on cars, writing about them and playing with them - he has numerous TV stunt-driving credits, many wins and lap records in circuit racing, and has also tried his hand at special stage rallying. He writes regularly on road safety issues for several publications and is a well-known radio commentator via his "On the road" road safety slot on Classic FM 102.7.