Opinionista Styli Charalambous 3 November 2011

Yippee – the Outsurance pointsmen are gone

Before you start pelting me with tomatoes and calling me crazy (again), consider how the role of the pointsmen is like putting a plaster on a bullet wound.

Navigating the morning rush hour of Johannesburg can be an emotional experience. As the army of German and Japanese machines carry worker bees to the hubs of Sandton and the CBD, some mornings can feel like you’re navigating a PS3 game minefield.

Dodging potholes has become a regional sport, with tales of near-catastrophic misses being proudly recounted at the water cooler and the size of the offending fissure exaggerated like that fish that got away. Except that the potholes will, unlike fish, be there for a long time.

And then there’s those multi-talented women, who manage to steer their cars in peak traffic while applying, no, designing their morning face, updating their Facebook status and hurling abuse at errant taxi drivers, all at the same time.

Road rage is a common phenomenon on our roads, and while it may not always materialise in a physical dust up between two middle-aged men slugging it out on the William Nicol, it’s not uncommon to see two drivers engaging in an early morning bout of bird flipping. Who needs coffee when you have the adrenaline rush that is Jo’burg traffic?

So you can imagine how much higher the aggravation levels rise with the onset of the summer Highveld rains. Apart from making the potholed and regularly under-construction roads a slippery hazard, the rains bring about an almost total massacre of functioning traffic lights in the city. For anyone who has had to endure the delays of Joburgers fourway-stopping their way through 5km of backed-up traffic, you’ll know just how infuriating and time-consuming the experience is.

So six years ago, Colleen Bekker, an advertising agency owner, gave birth to the idea of using private pointsmen, sponsored by big brand companies with a radio partner, to manage those carnage-stricken intersections where traffic congestion was worst.  In September 2005 the first pointsmen were deployed after training with the Johannesburg Metro Police, bringing joy to commuters all over the city.

By ensuring a steady flow of traffic on the many days when the traffic lights were flashing red and providing employment, the pilot project was so effective that it spread to Cape Town and Pretoria and a separate management company, Traffic Freeflow was formed to formalise the arrangement. With the popularity of the project, came the appointment of more pointsmen and a monthly bill in the region of R1million.

So when the City of Johannesburg announced the project would need to be suspended  to follow due process for all public-private partnerships as legislated, the residents of Jo’burg exploded in a torrent of outrage at another case of incompetence and bungling by the officials of the City of Jo’burg. After six years, red-tape regiment decided in the height of rainy season to pull the pointsmen off the roads, confining morning commuters to snail’s pace gridlock.

While the outrage is completely warranted, it is unfortunately misdirected. For most of this week, Talkradio 702 has fielded calls recounting how the lack of pointsmen has caused untold delays, in some case getting from A to B only 5kms away, taking over an hour in stop-start traffic. But my fellow residents of Jo’burg are missing the point completely, with their indignation better directed at the cause of the problem. Why the hell can’t the City of Jo’burg buy waterproof robots in the first place?

Does Jo’burg order its robots from a secret tenderpreneur-funded testing factory in the Sahara Desert? How is this the only place in the world where even a drizzle can cause traffic lights to malfunction to that degree, without cutting the power? Surely, this can’t be that hard a problem to solve. For one, I don’t ever want to see another Outsurance pointsman on our roads again.

I’d rather private enterprise took it upon themselves to find a solution to rain-sensitive robots that manage our cities traffic, because the City of Jo’burg (warning: I will use strong, but justified language now) clearly is a bunch of bungling idiots, adding yet another calamity to its already monumentally long-list of cock-ups.

Let’s remember that this is ultimately a marketing exercise for the likes of Outsurance, which without the exposure, would not be half as charitable. So I don’t care if every traffic light is painted in their lime green colours, but their R1 million monthly contribution to paying pointsmen is like putting a plaster on bullet wound or the equivalent of using broadband that is powered by rows of cyclists generating kinetic-electric energy to power the service. (And you forgot the little boy sticking his index finger in the creaking dyke – Ed)

Pointsmen are a regressive solution and, while it was an ingenious response to a massively frustrating problem, it should only have been a stop-gap while a proper, sustainable solution was worked out by the already-mentioned bunch of bungling idiots. For heaven’s sake, this is the 21st century and we’re advocating the use of more manual labour to do the job of technology! Our goal should be to see the number of pointsmen dwindling, not trying to build it into this massive employment opportunity.

Now before you pick up the phone to Talkradio 702 to complain about the lack of pointsmen, rather direct your anger at getting the cause of the disease cured, not the symptom. DM



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