Dead remembered in roadside memorials

Doreen Zimbizi

Doreen Zimbizi

I never met Bianca, Theodore, Chantal, Ashley or Miguel. But I know that they died young, killed in separate road accidents over the past year. They were all born between 1983 and 1989.

I know this because on the spots where they were killed their families have erected roadside memorials - flowers and crosses bearing their names, photos, their dates of birth and when they died.

I finally stopped next to Bianca's cross this week. I was hesitant as I got out of my car. I had to ask myself again if what I was about to do was intrusive or disrespectful. Then I decided I might as well do it after weeks of indecision.

I needed to acknowledge the young lives, all lost in tragic circumstances.

I had never met the teenage girl, but every day on my way to drop my son at school, I drive past the spot where Bianca lost her life. There is a small white cross. Attached to it is her fading photograph and a small green and yellow flower.

I now know she was born on February 3 1989 and died on May 22 2005. Most times when I stop at the traffic lights I avoid eye contact with the cross and the photo. She was the same age as my son. I always wonder: was she knocked down by a car while crossing the street at a nearby school, or by some crazy drunk driver?

I cannot even imagine the grief and pain her family are still going through. I haven't lost a child, but if the pain of losing a loved one is anything to go by, then spare a thought for the families of the 12000 people killed on South African roads every year.

Every day, on the by-ways and highways new roadside memorials - flowers and crosses mainly, and in some cases small tombstones - spring up. These symbols remind us that a precious life was lost in tragic circumstances.

Most of the victims are young people, some barely in their teens, cut down in the prime of their lives. This week I counted seven memorials within a 5km radius of my house.

Across the road from Bianca Richerts' cross on Golf Club Terrace, in Florida, there is a memorial for Theodore Scheepers, born on June 10 1989.

On the day he was knocked down in August, I drove past as the emergency services team were attending to him.

I remember saying a little prayer that he would survive. The next day I passed a group of people huddled together, paying their respects to another young life snuffed out. Theodore had not made it. He died on August 30 this year.

I also stopped there this week. The names of those who knew and loved him are scribbled on the cross. You cannot help but feel their pain.

Another 2km down the road, next to a very busy intersection on Ontdekkers Road, three youngsters - Chantal, Ashley and Miguel - are remembered. There are two crosses - one with all three of their photos on it and another one bears the photo of a smiling Chantal.

All these are constant reminders of how precious and fragile life really is.

But questions are being asked if such memorials serve their purpose, or are they adding to the problem?

One argument is that their existence provides motorists with a constant reminder of the consequences of reckless driving.

These signs and symbols are supposed to jolt us into being responsible motorists who value human life and, therefore, ensure that we drive responsibly.

But the counter-argument is that instead of being a deterrent, these memorials actually distract drivers' attention, and sometimes result in more accidents at the same places.

So why the roadside memorials? Why are so many people choosing to grieve so publicly, or is it just a survival mechanism?

I was unable to interview the families of the young people whose memorials I visited, so it's difficult to say why they choose to remember their loved ones in this way. But those who have been interviewed in the past say they need the memorials to honour the dead and raise awareness about the hazards of reckless driving.

A couple in Port Elizabeth recently told a TV journalist that they had erected a small tombstone on the spot where their loved one had died because after he was cremated they couldn't bury the ashes in the cemetery, which is neglected. Rather than dump the ashes, they felt it better to erect the tombstone.

The South African National Roads Agency wants the memorials removed because they are unlawful and are a road hazard. The agency's spokesman, Connie Nel, told the media recently that they couldn't continue to allow people to erect these memorials.

While admitting that this is a sensitive issue, she said families were allowed a period of mourning, after which the memorials would be cleaned up by their routine maintenance teams.

Would that ease the pain for the grieving families? This debate is likely to continue for a long time.