Invest in small towns to end road carnage

Road accident
Road accident
Image: 123RF/Bunyarit Suwansantawee

Every year without fail, there is carnage on South African roads. Not even a global pandemic that has restricted movement has managed to stop the slaughter.

Over the past few weeks, we have observed some extremely horrifying scenes that have occurred on the roads, where accidents have claimed the lives of multitudes of people and left many injured.

In almost all the accidents that I read about, there were multiple casualties. In some of the more horrific of these accidents, the victims were young children travelling with family members. In one particular accident, a head-on-collision that happened in Magaliesburg, in the west of Johannesburg, an entire family was killed.

In Limpopo, six people were killed, including four children, when a bakkie and truck collided on the N1 South in Mokopane on New Year’s Eve. Such stories are far too common during the festive season and other holidays such as the Easter long weekend.

There are many factors that inform the high number of accidents on our roads. These include but are not limited to: driving under the influence, driving above the speed limit, unroadworthy vehicles and the poor quality of our roads.

The latter is especially true in provinces such as the Eastern Cape, Mpumalanga, the North West and Limpopo, where road infrastructure is far worse than it is in more industrialised provinces.

And it is precisely this point that I wish to reflect upon as I pose the argument that unless it invests significantly in the development of infrastructure in these provinces, the democratic government is going to reproduce the same patterns of structural inequalities and separate development that were born out of colonial and apartheid spatial planning regimes.

Government officials come out every year ahead of the festive season and Easter long weekend to warn motorists to be cautious on the roads. While this is helpful, there doesn’t seem to be any long-term strategy on how to deal with the problem.

And to develop such a strategy requires an understanding of why oscillatory migration still happens in SA three decades into the democratic dispensation.

In the developed world, urbanisation has been on a decline as populations move towards rural living.

And this is happening because they have realised something that the South African government also needs to: that in order to stem the flow of populations into big cities, you need to invest in the development of rural areas and their surrounding small towns.

By doing this, you remove the incentive that people have for moving to cities like Johannesburg, Pretoria, Durban and Cape Town — better economic opportunities. You bring these closer to home so that people are not forced to migrate.

The Eastern Cape should be a pilot for this new thinking around spatial development. The province has many small towns in close proximity to rural areas and cities.

But as with everything else in the province, these have been left to decay. They are characterised by soaring levels of unemployment and poverty, as well as socio-economic problems including substance abuse, teenage pregnancies and HIV/Aids.

In some of the small towns that I did research in when I was doing my geography degrees at Rhodes University in Makhanda, there is such a gross lack of amenities that there aren’t even any high schools.

Children complete primary school and if they don’t have any family members in the major cities where they can complete their high schooling, or money to go to boarding school, then grade 7 is where their education ends.

Government needs to start developing sensible strategies that bring development into rural areas and small towns.

Nothing short of this will end the festive carnage on our roads.

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