Transport authorities and citizens all have a role to play in lowering the death toll on South Africa’s urban streets. We have grown accustomed to scary statistics in South Africa; but it will take more than frightening figures to solve the alarming problem of traffic-related deaths. According to the Medical Research Council of South Africa, 17,000 people die on our roads each year; close to a third are pedestrians, from which 3 000 are children. After quoting this number to an acquaintance, he replied: “But that’s probably pedestrians crossing highways.” As if that would diminish the level of tragedy.
The root of the problem lies in the lack of respect for human life in South Africa and the acceptance, as a result, that people could perish on the roads as if “accidents” were not preventable. In Colombia, where I grew up, human life too has been subjected to low levels of respect. For reasons, though not all similar to South Africa, our past is also marred by conflict and structural violence.
Without simplifying the complexity of a history of dispossession and injustice, I’d like to argue that nothing is a better mirror to our societies than the way we treat each other in public space. In Bogota, for instance, the late 1980s were a time of turmoil and despair, largely as a result of the civil conflict. It was no coincidence that traffic fatalities were one of the biggest concerns for local authorities in the early 1990s.
It took a philosopher and mathematician turned mayor to think creatively about such problem. With street performance and other interactive strategies, Antanas Mockus was determined to teach Bogota’s inhabitants to be better citizens. As a child I remember mimes at busy intersections mocking drivers for stopping on pedestrian crossings and pedestrians for recklessly walking across the street in the midst of traffic. I also remember the red cards Mockus had printed so all of us, citizens, had a chance to “card” our counterparts when we spotted their bad behaviour. The back of the card had a thumbs up, giving us a chance to also commend positive attitudes.
Mockus postulated the idea that a place exists where law, morality and culture intersect and that great power can be unleashed when all three converge. This type of “social acupuncture” is what might be needed on the streets of South Africa; a series of “pressure” points in places that highlight culture and moral values while encouraging the respect for the law.
In Cape Town last month, Open Streets and the Western Cape Government’s Department of Transport and Public Works (as part of its Safely Home programme) rolled out a test called Streetiquette – in collaboration with the City of Cape Town and with assistance from the Central City Improvement District. The aim was to use street theatre to find that place in the public psyche where peer pressure and cultural innuendos are stronger than law enforcement. And so we worked with theatre director Mandisi Sindo to develop four characters that would tell the story of pedestrian safety and its vicissitudes.
Instead of mimes, Streetiquette was brought to life by “Little Red Riding Hood”, “Super Gogo”, “Street (Soccer) Referee” and “Mourning Wreath”. Each one of these played out in a busy intersection of the Cape Town CBD. Some of them created a stir as people engaged directly with the performers. Many laughed, others became defensive while most simply smiled and wondered what it was all about.
While the first three were very interactive and often humorous, “Mourning Wreath” used a much more hard-hitting and emotive approach by recreating a funeral procession and a small altar with kid-sized bicycles and flowers. This symbolised the 59 child pedestrians who have lost their lives in Cape Town this year alone. The scene was extremely sombre and the message was clear to all: too many of our children are dying on our streets.
Raising awareness can only get us half way though. Appealing to pedestrians and drivers to respect each other must of course be met with changes in the infrastructure as well as regulations that are designed to facilitate and enable safe movement through our cities. In the Western Cape, both local and regional government have been open to the idea of experimenting with performance and methods that might seem a little eccentric and, to some, perhaps even absurd given the gravity of the situation. And yet, there is recognition that law enforcement is not the only way to create safety. Innovation, experimentation and behavioural economics are also tools that can help our societies, particularly our streets, to be better places for all.
What must follow of course is a meaningful dialogue with policy makers that enable change to take place in policy spheres. If pedestrians have to wait more than two minutes at a traffic light or if red flashing lights communicate mixed messages, then design must be amended to respond to reality on the ground. If there is one thing we learned during this trial, it’s that behind the apparent sense of indifference, people do care and are concerned about each other. In one of the performances, Super Gogo tried to cross a pedestrian crossing and many bypassers came to her help. Similarly, when being “caught” and carded by the soccer referee, many reflected on the inappropriate behaviour they had just displayed.
How we elicit more respect for each other is what Open Streets as an organisation is working to achieve through our series of Open Streets Days (car-free days) as well as our campaigns such as Streetiquette. A partnership with local government is enabling creative platforms to engage the public at large in this important conversation, and if continued over the long term it can effectively change how we behave on our streets. If met with appropriate and enabling regulations, we could be on our way to decreasing that appalling statistic that keeps South Africa on top of the list of countries with rate of traffic-related deaths. DM
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