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The link between bad driving and poverty

20th August 2010

By: Seeraj Mohamed


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I often find driving in downtown Johannesburg to be a most frustrating experience, not only because of congestion, but also because of the behaviour of other drivers.

There is a lack of politeness and a general disrespect for other drivers and for the rules of the road. I think this lack of respect makes traffic problems worse. These problems affect all who have to drive there but may also be seen as representing some of the bigger problems in our economy and our society.


Political change in South Africa led to the large-scale desertion of the city centre by many larger businesses. The rapid increase in office blocks in Sandton and other areas north of the city centre seems to be an important contributing factor to the problems now experienced in the city centre.

However, not all big businesses have deserted the city centre and some of these businesses and local government have done much to improve the city centre. While traffic may often be frustrating, the city centre can be a pleasant place in which to work, shop and walk around. But there is much more that should be done to improve the conditions of streets and buildings and overall safety in the city centre. Much more could be done to support the small black businesses that have replaced the bigger white businesses that have moved out of the city. There have also been efforts to improve public transport services, but we still seem to be at the beginning of the implementation of measures to tackle these problems.


Social and economic problems in South Africa are related to access to resources. Areas that do not have adequate resources have problems, while those with resources seem to work well. The allocation of money and skills to improve economic, business and working conditions makes a huge difference to people’s lives. Those who can afford to leave areas without adequate resources will move to better-resourced areas, further impoverishing the underresourced areas.

In South Africa, the distribution of wealth and income continues to be skewed. On the whole, white people are better off than black people, continue to be the majority owners of big businesses and still constitute the biggest proportion of executives and managers of these businesses.

As a result, the spatial dimensions of inequality have a racial character in our country. Generally, the areas that have better facilities are where more white-owned businesses and households are located. While these areas may have traffic con- gestion and many drivers in these areas may not respect the rules of the road and other road users, on the whole, it is much more pleasant to drive there. I do not think that it is the fact that there are fewer minibus taxis in the more affluent areas that makes driving there easier than in downtown Johannesburg. It seems that, in spite of there being some bad drivers, traffic rules are better followed and drivers are less likely to block traffic intersections in more affluent areas. In other words, the same driver will be slightly better behaved when driving in downtown Sandton than in downtown Johannesburg.

There may be better traffic policing in more affluent neighbourhoods. However, it also seems that the poverty in poor neighbourhoods may cause people to feel less inclined to be polite or to follow traffic rules. On the one hand, people like minibus taxi drivers, who are in competition with other drivers and have an incentive to take gaps, run red lights and block traffic inter- sections, will feel that, since no one really cares about these poor neighbourhoods, they will act with less respect there. On the other hand, there is a systemic problem where more drivers in the poorer neighbourhoods will react to bad drivers by driving like the bad drivers, which means that more people show less respect for fellow drivers and traffic rules.

Inequality and inadequate resources affect not only the quality of commuting but all other aspects of life in South Africa. Most people in this country live in under-resourced neighbourhoods that do not get enough respect. They are forced to live with inadequate shelter, schooling, healthcare and access to basic services and the socioeconomic difficulties caused by underresourcing.


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