Towards an Alternative Archive of Road Safety Interventions in South Africa: A Historical and Ethnographic Approach
Dr Rebekah Lee
Department of History
Goldsmiths College, University of London
At the May 2011 launch of South Africa’s ‘Decade of Action for Road Safety 2011-2020’, as part of the World Health Organisation-led global effort to combat road-related injuries and fatalities, Transport Minister Sibusiso Ndebele offered this candid assessment: ‘By all accounts the death of some 14,000 people every year, the death of at least 1,000 people every month, the death of no less than 40 people every day on South Africa’s roads must be described as an epidemic.’ Ndebele’s framing of road accidents as an ‘epidemic’ invites inevitable comparison to that other great public health challenge facing South Africa, that of HIV/AIDS. These discursive interventions reflect what I call an ‘epidemiological turn’ in state-sponsored road safety campaigns in the post-apartheid period. The framing of road accidents as a public health challenge has proved helpful in emphasizing the urgency of the issue, as well as providing a familiar language within which road users can engage with strategies of accident prevention. However, the stress on behavioural change has obscured a broader emphasis on systemic and historically contingent factors—including poor road conditions, lack of safe and adequate public transport options, and wider structural inequality— which have undoubtedly contributed to South Africa’s high accident and fatality rates. This focus has also tended to ignore diverse and often culturally specific notions of risk and road danger, which may exert a powerful influence on road users’ willingness to participate in accident prevention initiatives. This paper is part of a larger project which begins to explore, and critically interrogate, this epidemiological turn in South African road safety. The paper will present preliminary findings from my efforts to collect an ‘alternative archive’ of road safety perceptions and interventions in contemporary South Africa – including missionary sources, oral histories, road safety blogs, facebook posts, visual art and popular music.