State must lead by example
A FRIEND of mine in Mpumalanga recently observed an interesting and dicey encounter between a motorist and honest traffic officers - an endangered species.
Driving his German sedan on a road notorious for potholes that could easily pass for fishponds when it rains, he was stopped at a road block.
His car was thoroughly inspected and the law enforcement officers, who very surprisingly didn't ask for a bribe, wanted to issue him with a ticket fine.
The offence was that he was driving a car with tyres that resembled a snake's skin, those that could bring a chill to the spine of Transport Minister S'bu Ndebele, who is running a noble road safety campaign.
The motorist protested at the prospect of being fined. Strangely, he said, he was not the real culprit. He was instead a victim of something over which he had no control.
Acknowledging that he had put his life and those of other road users at risk and was also in breach of the law, but - and this was a big but - the government, whom the traffic officers represented, was guilty of the primary office.
How so, the curious officers asked.
By failing to fix the roads that had turned the tyres of his car into what they had become, the government was responsible for committing the offence for which he was about to be fined.
"Who will give the government a fine for the potholes all over the roads?" he asked.
Now, what appeared like a normal roadblock, became a Gordian knot situation that somehow had to be resolved. The traffic officers knew he had a valid point.
They could see for themselves that as much as the tyres were not roadworthy, the road was not "carworthy" either - if there is such a phrase.
But at the same time, the traffic officers had an obligation to do their job. They had to enforce the law without fear or favour. That's what they committed themselves to do when they took their oath of office.
The motorist too wanted to be the law-abiding citizen that he has always been. He was not about to bribe them anyway. He was just making an obvious, but loaded point.
Added to the dilemma was that there was no evidence to prove that had the road been properly maintained, the motorist would have been driving a car on roadworthy tyres.
Was he not just coming up with excuses? This was more a point of conjecture. But perhaps a counter argument would be that there was no proof that had the road been "carworthy", his car would not be sporting roadworthy tyres.
Also tricky was that he could well have conceded and paid the fine and then gone to put on new tyres.
Yet, it would not take long for the new tyres to get worn out because the government would not have fixed the road. The road had been like that for a while - a mixture of gravel and fishponds. My friend drives on it daily on the way to work.
It seems like an insignificant story of a stubborn and argumentative motorist, but one could not miss the underlying significant message inherent in it.
Here was a citizen who felt that he needed to bargain with a state that was no less guilty of perhaps the worst offence: Failing to use taxpayers' money to do what it is meant to do.
It appears the more the fuel levy is increased every year, the more there are potholes in the roads.
The moral of the story is that the government should first get its act together before it points fingers at citizens.
That the government was the worst offender - had put peoples' lives at risk by failing to maintain roads - meant it was unfathomable for it to claim the moral high ground, and thus made it difficult for it to enforce a good law when confronted by an honest citizen.
And so, while Ndebele is correct to campaign for roadworthy vehicles, he would do well to also campaign against roads that are not "carworthy".
This story's application goes beyond the importance of eliminating road deaths. At any given time, the government of the day has to enforce the law.
The correctness of the law, if consistent with the Constitution, cannot be questioned. But there has to be a basis for the law to be applied. And that basis includes a government that can claim the moral high ground, one that can lead by example in upholding the law.
There is therefore a moral obligation on individuals and institutions of state at a higher level to behave in an exemplary manner. Through their conduct they have a lot to teach lower-rung institutions and ordinary citizens.
A question could be asked: What is the difference between political leaders who attack state institutions meant to safeguard democracy and ordinary folk who burn libraries and other public property? There is hardly a difference.
Both are unthinking mobs whose actions leave society much poorer.