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Drunken Drivers Needn't Worry in South Africa

  • Darren Taylor

Robert van Rensburg (not his real name) in a bar in Johannesburg, just before driving under the influence of alcohol. (D. Taylor/VOA)

Robert van Rensburg (not his real name) in a bar in Johannesburg, just before driving under the influence of alcohol. (D. Taylor/VOA)

This is the fourth story in a five-part series on road chaos in South Africa.

An SUV surges down Johannesburg’s M1 highway, its interior filled by the industrial, pounding sound of American metal band Rage against the Machine.

“Hey! Hey! Sleep now in the fire!” screams vocalist Zack de la Rocha.

The driver sings along.

It’s just past 10 on a Friday night, and the highway is electric with light and noise from speeding cars. It’s been another hot day, and a light drizzle causes steam to rise from the asphalt in thin, silver wisps.

Businessman Robert van Rensburg (not his real name) is at the wheel — with the alcohol from five beers and three tequilas pulsing through his veins.

He’s well over the legal alcohol intake limit to drive, so van Rensburg is committing a crime. Not that he’s worried.

Traffic police fine a motorist in Johannesburg. Robert van Rensburg says if they stop him for drunken driving, he simply bribes them to let him go. (D. Taylor/VOA)

Traffic police fine a motorist in Johannesburg. Robert van Rensburg says if they stop him for drunken driving, he simply bribes them to let him go. (D. Taylor/VOA)

“You always get away with it," he says. "If a police van or even a metro police car stops you, you know you can either talk your way out of it, or you can bribe your way out of it.”

Van Rensburg tells how police recently stopped him at a roadblock after he’d consumed “quite a few beers.” He says he told a police officer he didn’t want to blow into the breath analyzer, the device designed to measure the alcohol content of his breath, because he “didn’t trust” the machine.

Van Rensburg continues: “Then [the officer] said, ‘OK, but if you don’t want to take the test, then how are we going to do this?’ Then [I just said], ‘Here’s my license,’ and with the license [I] give him a few hundred rand.”

After paying the bribe, he says, the policeman waved him on, and he continued driving to another party.

Few convictions

Every year, the police arrest thousands of people in South Africa for allegedly driving under the influence of alcohol.

But according to research by the Justice Project, a nongovernmental organization that monitors implementation of the country’s laws, only 6 percent of suspects are ever convicted of the crime.

This is because of factors like drunken drivers bribing the police to lose dockets, blood-alcohol test results taking years to process, and a huge backlog at state laboratories. Magistrates then abandon the cases.

The state says about 14,000 people are killed in road crashes in South Africa annually. Independent analysts put the toll at between 20,000 and 25,000, because unlike the government, they include victims who die in hospitals up to 30 days after a collision.

Whatever the true numbers, the authorities maintain that alcohol is a factor in almost 60 percent of all road crash fatalities in South Africa.

‘Crazy’ driving

At a bar filled with raucous men celebrating a bachelor’s party, people drink shooter after shooter. The inebriated groom-to-be is nearly naked, clothed only in a rainbow-striped Mexican sombrero and a grubby nappy.

Van Rensburg smiles at the scene, and describes his “good job,” supplying an assortment of goods and services to various government departments.

He speaks of his wife — “a good person, sometimes a bit boring” — and his two kids — “the 16-year-old gives me hell with all her boyfriends,” he laughs.

He lives in a typical middle-class suburb, in a house with three bedrooms and a swimming pool.

Van Rensburg later nonchalantly says he drives under the influence of liquor “all the time.”

“Basically, it’s all a blank. Whatever you do, the way you drive — you don’t remember much,” he adds.

Paramedics treat a patient at the scene of a car crash. They often try to save the lives of people injured in drunken-driving incidents. (Credit: JPSA)

Paramedics treat a patient at the scene of a car crash. They often try to save the lives of people injured in drunken-driving incidents. (Credit: JPSA)

He says it’s often his “unlucky” passengers who inform him of his recklessness.

“They come the next day and they say, ‘Phew, the way you were driving last night, it was crazy. You skipped [traffic lights]; you went over these humps....' ”

His BMW a write-off

Van Rensburg recalls being involved in several collisions.

One night after a drinking session he says he “collapsed” into bed next to his wife.

“She woke me up; she said: ‘What’s all this blood on you?’ I was like: ‘Blood? What? I don’t know.’ And I carried on sleeping."

The next morning he awoke to find his car “smashed” in his garage.

“I’d obviously injured myself by crashing on my way home,” says van Rensburg, shrugging his shoulders.

He acknowledges “it’s a miracle” that he’s never collided with another car — as far as he knows.

But van Rensburg’s own vehicles haven’t been so fortunate.

“I wrote off a BMW once. I went over a pavement at a T-junction. I think I was busy on my cellphone. … I’d been drinking brandy.”

He says he abandoned the wreck and began to walk home, only to be confronted by the police. He denied being the driver of the vehicle.

“I said the guy who was driving was my friend, but he ran away. I stuck to this story and then eventually [the police] even took me home,” van Rensburg says.

“I never heard from the police again. I didn’t have to make a statement to them — nothing. I just got a tow truck to take the Beemer to the scrapyard in the morning.”

Concerns 'fade fast'

Van Rensburg emphasizes that another reason he and others drink and drive is South Africa’s “poor” public transport system.

Robert van Rensburg visits another bar before driving to his middle-class home in a Johannesburg suburb. (D. Taylor/VOA)

Robert van Rensburg visits another bar before driving to his middle-class home in a Johannesburg suburb. (D. Taylor/VOA)

There are no late-night buses or trains. There are taxis, but van Rensburg says they’re too expensive, and even if they were cheap, taking a taxi isn’t practical in South Africa.

“You can take a taxi home, but what about your vehicle? With the crime in South Africa, you can’t leave your car in the middle of nowhere. Next day you come there, your car will be gone.”

Van Rensburg says he does sometimes worry that he’ll injure or even kill others, or himself, when driving under the influence. But when he starts drinking again, these concerns “fade fast.”

“You take that risk. You don’t even see it as a risk. You just think, ‘OK, I have to get home now.’ It’s not even a consideration,” he admits.

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