Helen Zille. Picture: VELI NHLAPO/THE SOWETAN
Helen Zille. Picture: VELI NHLAPO/THE SOWETAN

In the rarefied, highly paid world of elite-class columnists, the week after a state of the nation address is known as Harry Potter Week.* This is because, as with the arch-villain Voldemort in the books, we’re desperately trying not to mention The Party That Must Not Be Named — even though it has cleverly hijacked the national discourse with its populist antics.

So this week, instead of going with the bright red flow, I decided to scratch around and find something positive to write about, and I came across this statistic.

According to the SA National Roads Agency Ltd (Sanral), SA has the 10th-largest road network in the world. We have 746,978km of roads, of which 158,124km are paved.

By contrast, Kenya has a 177,800km road network, of which only 9,273km is paved. Nigeria, the big brother we’re always aspiring to beat, has 195,000km of roads, of which about 60,000km are paved.

As fiercely competitive South Africans, we’re used to appearing rather higher up lists, normally featuring in the top five. Unhappily, those are usually lists like "highest crime rate by country" (we’re at number three, so there’s room for improvement there), and "worst country for law and order", where we’re placed a very credible fifth out of the 142 countries covered.

Tenth-largest road network is good, right? Sure. But our roads are also a depressing symbol of how broken our (barely) civil society is. We’ve taken these beautiful, mostly even roads, designed to work perfectly, and broken them by adding speed bumps.

Think about it: roads brilliantly engineered to make driving your car a seamless operation, and we’re forced to introduce faults everywhere because of people who choose to disregard the rules of the road.

When I worked in Joburg, I calculated (if memory serves) that there were about 26 traffic-calming obstacles on my 3km drive to work. These included the crude obstacles of speed bumps, and also a series of traffic-calming circles.

If alien archaeologists were ever to excavate the ruins of Joburg, I can’t help thinking they’d be befuddled at this.

"Why did they take something beautiful and then scar it, Zorg?"

"I have no idea, Morg. Perhaps they were artists?"

No, Zorg, we’re not artists, we’re jerks.

Every speed bump you have to drive over should be a painful reminder that there are people in our society who think they’re above the law. I’ve used this line before, but it’s worth repeating: for South Africans, breaking the law is only a crime if someone else is doing it.

We seem to have an extraordinary capacity for selfishness and entitlement, and we don’t care that civil society suffers because of it.

According to Arrive Alive, the main reasons people demand speed bumps and other traffic-calming infrastructure are high speeds, the ominously named "pedestrian/vehicle conflict", reckless driving and the impact on quality of life.

As with all things, the people who suffer the most are not the rich idiots ramping their SUVs over the speed bumps. They probably just think speed bumps are cleverly designed to see how much air you can get, in the same way that speed limits are targets to beat rather than restrictions. It’s public transport users who bear the brunt.

The City of Cape Town’s 2008 traffic-calming policy points out that "traffic-calming measures impact negatively on the comfort of public transport users and can even lead to minor injuries to persons in public transport vehicles".

News website Business Insider tells us that the average cost to install a speed bump is R20,000. In Cape Town, "the waiting list for implementation of projects now exceeds 500 with an estimated cost of R30m — a capital allocation that has not materialised".

I tried to find out how many speed bumps there are in SA but, as you can imagine, that’s a much larger data project than a cobbled-together column.

When perusing the official documents pertaining to regulations, I discovered that "speed bump" isn’t even the right term. Officially, they appear to be called "speed humps", which makes them sound a little more benign.

Before I go too far down this bumpy road, let me point out that speed bumps are just the visible, concrete testament to how we allow selfish people to break the systems we need to make our society work. There are less concrete manifestations. The way The Party That Must Not Be Named destroyed the workings of parliament recently will be fresh in your memory, for instance. But there are other, more insidious examples.

One is from that network that used to be called the information highway. This week, DA leader Helen Zille has had to close down her official account, with its 1.4-million followers, and start again from zero. According to her farewell tweets: "After the grotesque treatment of my grand-daughter on Twitter yesterday, I am closing this account. I say goodbye to some of my followers, and good riddance to the haters, bots and sock-puppets that constitute such a large percentage of my 1.4-million plus followers."

Though it’s hard to feel sympathy for someone who has consciously opened the door to the types of trolls she has chosen to associate with, I do. Social media was supposed to be like our roads — an infrastructure designed and built to facilitate ease of movement and communication. As Mark Zuckerberg said: "I believe what we’re seeing is people having more power, and a long-term trend reshaping society to be more open and accountable over time."

What it means

SA's roads are a symbol of how broken society is: we've had to introduce defects to accommodate those who break the law

Of course, Zuckerberg also said: "A squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa," so there’s that.

In the same way that the lawless idiots have forced us to break our road network, the trolls and bad actors are going to force us to erect more and more speed bumps on our social media systems.

As Zille tweeted: "Twitter has degenerated into a platform for irrationality and mob-lynching. Everything that can be distorted and twisted for a hate-filled agenda, is used for the purpose of manufacturing outrage and inflicting maximum damage."

I wish I could tell you that she was exaggerating based on her personal experience, but I can’t. All the signs point to an ever-escalating use of social media for evil ends. We’re soon going to be faced with the same choice we had with our roads: how do we break the infrastructure so that we can still get some use out of it, while suffering the same checks and balances we need to counter those people (and bots) trying to subvert the system for their own selfish ends?

It’s going to be crucial that we don’t delegate this problem to the digital equivalents of hectoring estate residents and government officials with shovels.

As has been pointed out before, if we leave the regulation of social media to governments, we’re going to end up with barricades that make their existence easier, and ours unnecessarily bumpy.

*This is fake news. There is no group of elite-class columnists, and if there were, they’d never admit to having read Harry Potter

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