Saturday, August 25, 2012

Slow down and smell the sunflowers

 Words: Nick van der Leek

I have a knee injury courtesy of a road accident in 1990. Basically the dashboard of the bakkie I was in chomped my knee during impact, dicing out a banana peel of skin just above the kneecap.

That injury serves a reminder at how dangerous and damaging a single road incident can be. The message is: even if you survive, the damage tends to be lasting. It involves a rape of the body – if not the mind – which can last a lifetime. Yet anyone who walks away from an accident can count themselves lucky. Many thousands do not.

14 000 road accident deaths on South Africa’s roads are 14 000 too many. A simple math calculation shows that 14 000 deaths equate to almost 1200 deaths every month, almost 40 a day. If those numbers appear meaningless, imagine a classroom of people wiped out every day. What a waste when all of this is preventable.

The strategy until now has been to focus on the four methods of prevention: wear a seatbelt, control speeding, prevention of drunk driving and driver fatigue. But has it been effective? I don’t disagree with the methods of prevention, but recommend a more holistic approach (inclusive of these strategies). To change behaviour comprehensively, we need something beyond a rule book. We need to change our beliefs about what constitutes happy motoring.

Before we move on, two explicit points should be made. Firstly, South Africans have in the past been vociferously opposed to additional limits on speeding. Having travelled to Australia, a country almost ten times the size of ours, with far better roads, superb public transport infrastructure and half the population, the speed limit there is 110km/h. It’s not 110km/h give or take 10km/h. It’s strictly enforced. In fact on one occasion as we were leaving Perth’s city limits a squad car, lights flashing, actually pulled us over for exceeding a 90km/h speed limit. We were going 92km/h.

The argument, including by the AA, is that speed alone isn’t responsible for road accidents; there are many other causes. True. But that argument is as ridiculous as the alcoholic who claims smoking is worse than drinking as a way to bargain for the right to continue doing something that is ill-advised anyway. Smokers do the same thing, arguing that drinking is worse than smoking. All they gain is the right is make no attempt to do anything, which I maintain is foolish and unacceptable given the realities on our roads. Let’s face it, the accident I was in that nearly tore off my knee took place on the outskirts of Pretoria. We were travelling at roughly 80km/h in a 60km/h zone. The accident happened due to a combination of speeding by my friend (the driver), and impatience, due to someone jumping a traffic light ahead of us as soon as it turned yellow.

More recently someone told me about a biker (on a superbike)who claimed to make the trip from Johannesburg to Bloem in just over 2 hours, and from Bloem to Kimberley’s city centre (180km) in 40 minutes. An ex-girlfriend of mine had one side of her face bludgeoned by a rogue motorbike crashing through the centre of their kombi one night. She’s already had 8 painful reconstructive surgeries. The same accident killed her sister. I’m not sure whether she’d be impressed by his achievement. The point is: none of us should be. As it stands, the statistics show that when human factors are associated with fatal accidents, speeding is the culprit 30% of the time. Exceeding the speed limit is also becoming increasingly expensive – it simply wastes fuel. So it makes absolute sense to drive slower.

Which brings me to the bottom line. In order to address the malaise of negligent driving on South Africa’s roads, from everyday recklessness by minibus taxis, to the everyday cheeky driving by everyone else, we need to inculcate a new value system for our roads. Respect for life is a great place to start. People seem to have a healthy respect for the ocean, and are quickly cowed by reports of fatal shark attacks, even when there are one or two each year. Yet we don’t have similar respect when driving, despite classroom-sized casualty levels every day. Why?

I believe we need a culture that is based on the idea of Protect the Weak. The belief that life is precious needs to be rediscovered. One of the best ways to develop sensitivity to other road users is to ride on a bicycle. After all, the biggest casualty on our roads isn’t drivers killing each other, but people in cars driving into people. I maintain that if all road users are forced to cycle to work for one day in the year, behaviour will begin to change. There’s a way to enjoy driving without racing. Stop often. Photograph roadside birds. Have a picnic. After all, one of the benefits of taking one’s time to get from A to B is having a better quality of life for the rest of one’s journey through life.

Where have all the good medals gone?


 Words: Nick van der Leek

So the Olympics have come and gone, and South Africa has returned from London with six medals. Don’t laugh, that’s five more medals than we got in Beijing, a year when even Zimbabwe (with four medals) had us eating Olympic dust (and spitting Chinese soot). And don’t you dare point fingers at our hopeful contenders either. I asked our triathlon champ, who was slated as a possible gold medallist, whether he gave 100% (he ended more than 2 minutes down on the winner). Richard Murray’s reply: “Get lost.”

We do seem a little lost, when you look at the company our medal tally keeps. We’re basically level with North Korea – a world pariah, one of the world’s most paranoid and poor societies. We’re also behind Cuba, another regime some of our heads of state are pals with.

On the other hand, it makes absolute sense that the world’s two superpowers are ruling the roost, the USA and China. Great Britain also did a fine job of setting up the appropriate courses for their horses; the United Kingdom finished the games in a very credible third. In fact, Europe overall featured prominently as a continent, whereas Africa shone darker than bronze. One does have to wonder why nations like Nigeria, with 160 million people, aren’t capable of producing a single champion.

If we’re going to pick on large countries without Olympic winners (i.e. losers), we could start with Indonesia and India. Indonesia has a similar sized population to the USA, numbering in the low hundreds of millions. Indonesia couldn’t manage a single gold, although they did manage to get two medals out of their two hundred million plus citizens. India, with 1.2 billion citizens, did slightly better, no golds, but one silver, and four bronze.

All very well (or terrible, depending on where you live), but let’s compare apples with apples, not with bananas (I hear you say). So let’s take populations of a similar size to ours, say, South Korea. How did they do? Well, they kicked our butts, finishing in the top 10 with 27 medals. What about our regular rivals, the Kiwis and Aussies? That’s not going to go down well either. New Zealand with barely a tenth of our population, produced double the number of medals we did, and Australia, with half the population, produced even more: 35 medals, they’re in 7th spot overall.

Africa, overall, was shabby at this Olympics. The Kenyans brought home the most metal (9 medals) followed by Ethiopia (7) and then us. After that you don’t want to know – it’s a freefall. Near the bottom there’s Tunisia with 3 medals, Egypt (population 82 million) has two, and Algeria, Morroco, Uganda and Botswana each have one. No medals anywhere else. Namibia – zip. Mozambique – zero. Zimbabwe – null. Zambia – nought. Malawi – not one. Tanzania, Lesotho, Libya and did I mention Nigeria – diddly squat.

Which brings us back to South Africa. Putting North Korea out of minds for the moment, 6 medals for 50 million doesn’t look good, as I say, next to New Zealand’s 13 medals with less than 5 million people. The Netherlands have 20 medals for 16.6 million. And USA and Britain show what is possible – over 100 medals and more than 60 respectively. Britain has ten times the number of medals we have, for less than the double the population size.

We have done better, of course. During the bad old days of Apartheid, Stockholm 1912, South Africans put the Boer War behind them and pulled themselves up by their bootstraps – finishing seventh on the overall medals table (four golds and two silvers). Eight years later, in Antwerp, we won a total of 10 medals, and ten again in 1952 in Helsinki.

Which is why our very own Chad Le Clos, beating the world’s greatest Olympian is no small achievement. But Chad must be wondering, given the lack of support that sent our most decorated Olympian (Roland Schoeman) to America, whether he should invest in a country with such a poor record. Let’s face it; despite attending his fourth Olympic Games, Schoeman got virtually no airtime. And despite turning down a multi-million dollar offer from Dubai, South Africa hasn’t rewarded Schoeman with the same devotion. We still aren’t even sure what he’s achieved. Most South Africans still don’t really know that Schoeman holds individual world records in swimming (in other words, he’s a walking, living, breathing, Olympic and world Champion). The average South African thinks Ryk Neethling is our best swimmer, except Neethling has never won an individual medal at the Olympics.

If South Africa is to get back onto the podium we ought first of all to know who our champions are, support them, and celebrate them. It includes financial support, and also moral support. But it starts with recognition. You’ve got to wonder why some of our best athletes (Zola Budd, Kepler Wessels, Kevin Pietersen and Benni Mccarthy) went to seek their fortunes elsewhere. Politics. It starts in poorly managed sports administrations (ASA, CSA etc). It ends in deplorable results.

Part of the formula for success is simply having a clear picture of what you want to achieve. Corruption and greed spoil our dreams, and invalidate the efforts and toil not only of athletes, but everyone pursuing their pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Published in August AbouTime: Hamlets from Another Era

Hogsback and Hamburg are two hunky-dory destinations far from the hustle and bustle of modern city life, as Nick van der Leek recently discovered.


Some landscapes are a dime a dozen. One passes through them unaffected, except for a growing urge to be somewhere else. But once in a while one comes across a very special place. It starts gradually, the charm, with glimpses of vivid caterpillars curled around sharp, white acacia thorns growing beside farm fences. Then more and more cows start appearing on the verges of the road, until even the road signs warn of their crossing. Then goats scatter across a crest in the road, and hog families turn up. In the background, dozens of circular huts sprout out of the green earth like multicoloured toadstools to round off the farmyard vibe. Finally, even the hillsides erupt with silver fountains and waterfalls. Where else in South Africa does the countryside come alive with such appeal?
One of the reasons this area has such a distinct way of life is that it is not too easy to get to, located as it is a 224 km drive from Port Elizabeth and about an hour from Grahamstown. Of course, once the effort has been made, the place feels a world apart.

Read more.