Joburg, where the road to hell is paved with good indentations

It’s a disorientating experience to dwell in a city where the roadworks department fixes problems by… digging more holes. Then there’s the taxi drivers who drive like stuntmen, and the hallucinating traffic controllers. Oh, and the mayor is a sock puppet.

There are so many things that make it so bewildering to be a Joburg dweller. It’s not just our new mayor, though I’ll get to him.

The roadworks are particularly confusing. You could understand when, shortly before the local government elections last year, the roadworks department suddenly attacked a whole lot of spots with apparent problems. Its workers dug huge holes all around those problem areas, leaving bits of tarmac and other debris lying around, cordoned off the whole thing with that plastic netting stuff that is part-yellow and part-orange (they couldn’t go for a greater contrast?), then drove on to the next problem spot…

It was obvious to any citizen why they did that. It was local government election time, so obviously they had to show that they were working on the kinds of issues that concern Joburg dwellers, hence all the digging and the erection of yellow-and-orange netting stuff. Hence all the blockages in or on our roads, all the obstacles placed in the way of those trying to drive around the city.

It was as good as putting up a sign, in ANC colours, that said: “Hey, Joburg dwellers! Look! We’re busy fixing these problems that have arisen during the last five years of our tenure! We’re on to it! We’re on the job! Vote ANC!”

Except then they didn’t return. No, the local government elections were long over, the winners and losers had been declared, but those holes in the tarmac remained holes in the tarmac. The yellow-and-orange netting flapped gently in the breeze as the holes slowly, or quickly, depending on where we were in the monsoon season, filled up with water. Then the water began to stagnate, and mosquitoes bred, and the tarmac around the holes began to decay and crumble like necrotised flesh around a wound…

And so most of them sat there, and still sit there, though now we have a new mayor who has promised to fix the “potholes” (before moving on to the liberation of Palestine).

Someone obviously told him that potholes were a major problem all over Joburg and he’d better have something to say he was going to fix as he faced his virgin interview with a news station eager to speak to this mayor who’d been suddenly elevated to this position by myriad backroom manipulations and ANC-EFF love-ins.

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“Potholes,” repeated the mayor, “potholes”, temporarily forgetting to flash his very white teeth in a grin of unexpected victory, which he’d been doing a lot. He knew he had to say something about the problems causing Joburg to fall apart around our ears, and he had to say he’d fix them. He hadn’t been told about the water crisis yet and he had nothing to say about the power crisis, but potholes, yes, he’d get on to them at once.

And, in fairness, city workers have returned to some of those holes in the road and have done something to them and plastered them over with tarmac, just in time for the next hole to open up.

I’m glad, for instance, that they have returned yet again to a huge hole in the main road near my house and tarmacked that over again, because that bit of roadwork meant that a large number of cars had to detour past my place.

And that meant I couldn’t get out of my gateway at any point during rush hour, which is now rush hours, plural, and they last a very long time.

Once one understands that the new mayor is a sock puppet of the ANC-EFF bipartite alliance and that they’ll probably back-stab him sometime soon anyway, because the ANC will do anything, and I mean anything, to hang on to power, it gets easier to live with. Let the mayor fix a few potholes before we slide back into ANC chaos, sorry, ANC-EFF chaos.

Admittedly, one feels some slight regret at the deposition of the DA-led coalition mayor, because she’s the first mayor we’ve had in decades who actually had a plan to fix Joburg. (Herman Mashaba’s purging of street vendors doesn’t count.) Imagine that, a plan! The ANC had no plan. It couldn’t even admit there was anything wrong. And it still has no plan. “We will improve service delivery” – well, the ANC has said that so often nobody hears it any more, least of all the ANC.

It’s enough to make one nostalgic for the days of the NDP. Remember the National Development Plan? And the great planning commission, led by the man who is now the president of the country, that plotted a way forward for this developing nation?

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Well, we don’t mention the NDP any more. I suppose South Africa is so far off course now that it’s pointless to try to track any progress against the goals set for achievement in 2030. (2060, maybe?)

We do remember, though, that it was our present president who said, when he was still planning to make a plan, that what South Africa needed was a “capable state”. Everyone agreed with him then. But perhaps it would be insensitive to remind him of when he spoke such a true truism.

And the bewilderment continues for Joburg dwellers like me, especially those who, as I said, have to drive around the city on whatever business they’re busy with. It’s easy to sink into unobservant torpor about all sorts of things (the eight beggars at each traffic light, for instance), but when you have to take your life in your hands daily to get from A to B you are reminded of the urgent puzzles that have to be solved.

For instance, who goes, and in what order, when the traffic lights are out? And so many of them are out, even when there aren’t blackouts. Yes, I know there’s some guideline about it, but we have to be concerned about those who don’t follow the guidelines anyway. I mean, look at the drivers of the city’s minibus taxis – they’ve never followed a guideline in their lives. We all know that the minibus taxis have right of way, left of way and centre of way, but they don’t necessarily stop for red lights when the lights are working, so why expect them to stop for a light that isn’t working in any capacity at all?

I do comfort myself, in the general run of driving around Joburg, that the taxi drivers are certainly better drivers than I am.

They’re practically stunt drivers. So when they weave back and forth, changing lanes at random in an effort to shave four seconds off their journey time, they are only endangering other drivers a little more than they’re endangering themselves and their passengers. Being stunt drivers, the high-wire artists of the Joburg roads, they are surely experts at avoiding accidents, and I have decided to leave them to it.

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Yet, still, those bewildering moments keep happening. Sometimes the traffic lights are out but there’s someone in a fluorescent vest directing the traffic; you just never know if they’re actually a cop or a homeless person who’s hallucinating that they’re a traffic cop. Sometimes the traffic lights are in fact working but still there’s a cop-slash-indigent helping the traffic to, er, flow, or at least reminding us to pause briefly, to touch the brakes, before surging into the next life-threatening road incident.

The other day I was cautiously approaching an intersection, keeping an eye on who would be likely to whoosh across my path in a willy-nilly kind of way, when I suddenly saw there was a person there directing the traffic. He may not have been wearing the vest, so I might have thought for a moment he was just an indigent crossing the road.

But, no, he was gesturing wildly, sending the cars this way and that way in an enthu­siastic performance of some kind of control or direction.

As I approached, he went into overdrive: he fastened particularly on me, doubtless because I’d slowed down instead of simply ramming into him, and gestured more wildly still. “Come on,” his hands said, “get a move on! Don’t pause, don’t stop! Go, go, go!”

I accelerated. As I crossed the intersection and passed him with barely a centimetre to spare, he gave me a look of furious impatience, as if to accuse me of personally gridlocking the whole of Joburg. “Right,” I thought, “so now it’s my fault.”

Later, it came to me: like the new mayor, he must be deployed by the ANC. DM168

Shaun de Waal is a writer and editor.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.

Author: editor

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