It's time to grow up as a country and stop acting as if the genocide on our roads is part of the natural order of things, writes Richard Poplak.
I was warned as a boy: the danger lies in those last few miles before home. Most accidents – and I was shown the statistical evidence to back this up – take place in a five-kilometre radius of where one lives. Data notwithstanding, the warning always had the ring of a Grimm's fairytale to me. Just I was about to be enveloped by the warmth of hearth and kin, monsters lurked. Nothing explains life's cruelty and arbitrariness more than being struck down within spitting distance of your front door.
I thought of this last week as details emerged regarding the death of 25-year-old mountain bike champion Burry Stander. Stander always seemed like one of those athletes for whom the vicissitudes of life were, at worst, a minor inconvenience. But despite a personality that was apparently impervious to the hardships of making a living on a bicycle, the monsters waiting for Burry Stander would not be denied. They claimed him on his regular training route in Shelly Beach, KwaZulu-Natal, only metres from his father's bike shop – home of a sort.
The scene painted for us was one of abject tragedy, a dark South African version of a Grimm's tale. There lies the fallen one. His father watches as the life seeps out of him. His bike is split in two and nearby, a taxi driver stares on in shock. The last words Stander said to his young wife were, "I love you."
The nuances are clear to any South African with a pulse. Minibus taxis - scourge of the roads, the most eloquent reminder of the fact that we live in a country where life is worth less than nothing. Taxi, Bentley, Mini, VW Chico – the truth is that the precise circumstances of the accident are meaningless. Burry Stander is dead; a driver named Njabulo Nyawose – just one year younger than his victim – will serve hard time if found guilty; Cherise Stander is a widow; South Africa is down an Olympian and a stud athlete.
The cycling community has rallied with uncommon purpose, and solemn rolling vigils have been held across the country. Emails and tweets go back and forth, some of which are enraged – of course it was a fucking taxi! – but most of which were thoughtful and respectful and heartfelt. But they did not represent a consensus. It was Burry's time. It was fate. He left too soon. It was God's will. We must learn from this.
Maybe all of the above is true. Maybe none of it is. After all, what is there to learn from the senseless death of a 25-year-old newly married Olympian? That we are a country that allows our roads to run red with blood every holiday season? We know this already. Here's something else we know: competitive cycling is a middle class sport. The equipment is expensive, it takes chunks of time that for most would be an unthinkable luxury. It is for the rich, and the stupid. Want to risk your life on the roads? Be my guest.
That's one way of looking at it. But there's a detail no one seems to have grocked about this latest tragedy: both Njabulo Nyawose and Burry Stander were on the road earning a living. They may have come from different backgrounds, but the tarred roads that are paid for and maintained at the behest of South African taxpayers are essential to their respective bank accounts. No mountain biker can be competitive without spending the bulk of his training time on the road. And I needn't spell out what roads mean for a taxi driver.
In other words, both Stander and Nyawose used a public service in order to eat, and in turn maintained those services by paying taxes – not just on the money they earned from their jobs, but on the goods they purchased, like the petrol Nyawose pumped into his machine every day. There is no hierarchy in this equation – both men were entitled to use the road for their respective purposes, so long as they obeyed the rules that applied to them both, equally.
So far, so obvious. What seems to escape South Africa's ken, however, is the fact that everyone who uses our roads should be guaranteed safe passage. On Boxing Day, I had a good, old-fashioned, dry-as-a-bone gallows laugh – Sky News International ran as their lead story the death of a mother and her two children in a road accident somewhere in England. Horrific, I know.
But over the holiday season in South Africa, there is a story like that every hour. The Road Traffic Management Corporation (RTMC) can't count how many people have died since the middle of December – their rough estimate is around 1 300. That's the population of a good-sized dorp. That's four full Boeing 747's, and a 737 thrown in for change. That's almost half of the casualties from 9/11. That's carnage. That's a massacre.
Burry Stander is swallowed whole by that monstrous figure – he becomes a statistic within a statistic. One thousand three hundred. How many other cyclists belong to this number? A dozen? A hundred? Two hundred? The RTMC has no idea. They offer us bulk, not precision.
So if we are wise as a nation, we may consider using the death of Burry Stander as a cultural moment. We may want to take the time to ask what kind of society it is that we want to build. One that takes the lives of our fellow citizens seriously? Or one that treats other travellers as fair game, as hocks of meat? The cruelty and violence that so often define this country seem particularly well articulated on the road. Maybe if we start caring on asphalt, we'll start caring in our homes, in our businesses, in our schools, and everywhere else that we leave corpses lying around like rubbish. Maybe if we stop slaughtering each other with our vehicles, we'll stop killing each other wholesale in other walks of life.
Cycling is a dangerous sport. Burry Stander knew the risks. But it doesn't have to be this dangerous. Tens of thousands of South Africans ride their bikes to work everyday, in order to spare themselves extortionate transport fares, in order to stay fit, in order to avoid traffic jams, in order to feel free from the cage of a car. It's time to ensure their safety. Just as it's time to grow up as a country, and to stop acting as if the genocide that occurs on our roads every year is part of the natural order of things.
Burry Stander reminds us that our home is not a safe one. As a nation, we live out a recurring Grimm's fairytale – just as we're about to see our families and celebrate the season, we are flung onto a highway with our luggage all about us, our life leaking into the tar. So as we prepare to bury an Olympian, we should spare a thought for the 1 300 with whom he shares a special bond. Their deaths were not inevitable. They were not God's will. Their deaths were the fruit of a poisoned society.