Defend Truth


Deadly rural roads must be upgraded, now


Sonwabile Mnwana is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Fort Hare, South Africa. He holds a PhD in social sciences. He is also a research associate at the Society, Work and Politics Institute and the Southern Centre for Inequality Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits). He is project leader for several research projects, and he is also a Visiting Fellow at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study (STIAS).

The Centane bus tragedy in which 25 people died is an urgent wake-up call for the government – rural South Africa, and especially the former Transkei, still suffers from the deliberate underdevelopment of the apartheid era. We need good roads now if we are to avoid another bloodbath in the near future.

The tragic bus accident that occurred on the dusty gravel road near Centane in the Eastern Cape on 2 March has added yet another dark cloud over South Africa. We do not yet know why the bus veered off the road and rolled down a ravine, killing 25 people and injuring more than 60. But I know – in fact, it is common knowledge – that rural roads are in a terrible state. 

When I heard about the tragedy, particularly when newspaper accounts suggested that survivors pointed to the main cause of the accident as speed, and of course, the driver, I recalled the bus drivers in the 1980s in the old Transkei homeland where I grew up. I remembered the buses they drove and the poor villagers who were their passengers. 

One among the drivers was a stocky, round-faced, bearded fellow. He, like many bus drivers (and taxi drivers of today), was the king of the road. The passengers were the objects of his bad temper and arrogance. 

Rumour had it that, like other bus drivers of his generation, he had fathered children with many women in the impoverished villages that were scattered along the gravel road between Dutywa and Ngqamakwe, where the decrepit buses operated by the Transkei “government” used to run. Most rural drivers back then drove very recklessly and at times serious accidents occurred.

If the bus drivers of the Transkei homeland were kings, they were not kings of any “road” – the “road” as we know it did not exist. The dusty, rugged, bumpy, often eroded strips of dirt and gravel in the former Transkei homeland could hardly be called roads. Unfortunately, this situation still exists. The devastating accident on Monday 2 March is a shocking reminder that the conditions of the old apartheid homeland system are still intact. Most of the current gravel roads were built during apartheid.

The apartheid state had no interest in funding the building of decent infrastructure in the black “homelands”. It designed homelands to produce one thing – cheap migrant labour. You did not have to provide schools, roads, healthcare facilities and other essential services to achieve this goal.

African “reserves” and “homelands” emerged as a form of support to a distinctive super-exploitative, urban, white-driven system of industrial capitalism in South Africa that depended largely on the African migrant labour force. The social reproduction of this cheap labour was derived from the meagre rural landed resources and African economic systems of kinship networks.

As such, the white government found it easier to lock the majority of the African population in the rural areas, define them there as “natives”, subjects of “tribal authorities”, and when they entered the urban spaces they were “labour migrants” whose permanent place remained in the homelands. Hence, there was never any interest on the side of the authorities to construct proper roads for the rural poor.

Now, 26 years into our democracy, many villagers still die on these perilous roads. There are still no roads at all in many rural areas of the Eastern Cape. 

I recently called the police at Ngqamakwe Police Station to report an incident of violence. I was told to wait because there is only one police vehicle in Ngqamakwe. The provincial police commissioner confirmed that not only does the Ngqamakwe Police Station have only one van (responsible for providing services to thousands of families) there is nothing her office can do about it because “the roads are too bad in the rural areas”.

If the state cannot provide services because of the state of the roads in the rural Eastern Cape, then millions of poor people in the rural areas remain locked in the same conditions that defined the “homelands” under apartheid – poverty, congestion, landlessness, appalling education and economic exclusion. Were it not for the social grants children and the elderly receive, the rural areas would be facing starvation.

Upon hearing the devastating news of the accident, President Cyril Ramaphosa expressed sadness and concern. Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula also expressed his concern. He promised to launch an investigation into the cause of the accident. He went on to say “…we will not be sitting on our laurels… twiddling our thumbs. We will launch a massive awareness drive, targeting public transport bus operations.”

But a public safety campaign drive cannot help improve safety on gravel roads, mainly because:

  • There are hardly any road signs on the gravel roads;
  • Only the very brave individual bus owners and companies dare to risk investing into the rural transport industry – transporting poor people and goods from villages to towns and back – where the roads are in a shocking condition.
  • A person who is eager to buy a bus and put it on these roads is either intrepid or is going to cut corners massively when it comes to the safety of the bus and passengers.
  • The rural transportation business is, largely, the domain of van operators. Many of these are not roadworthy;
  • Gravel roads are extremely volatile. The gravel and rocks are eroded easily. In the rainy season, one never knows if the road used in the morning will maintain the same shape for the return journey.

Mbalula may not have been on a gravel road in the rural areas for a while, hence he seems to not be up to date about the status of the rural, horrible roads of death. 

The first step, Honourable Minister, is to construct proper roads – tarred roads – then maintain them and get your provincial and local government to enforce the road laws. Campaigns can only be effective if the state has put in place a good road infrastructure.

“Safer roads begin with safer attitudes and behaviour,” Ramaphosa said after the accident. 

While there is a need for a “safer attitude and behaviour”, our leaders need to construct proper roads first.

Why should a mundane shopping trip pose such a serious risk to the lives of the rural poor? Why do they have to perish in such a brutal manner? How many more people need to die before the government builds proper roads? 

There should be an urgent Rural Roads Infrastructure Plan to expedite the upgrading of roads in rural areas where more than 18 million black South Africans live. The state can address this impasse by prioritising the tarring of the main gravel roads that connect villagers to the nearest towns and healthcare centres. DM


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