End this dark ritual

Every year around this time South Africans engage in the macabre ritual of monitoring the road-death body count, exchanging anecdotes about the hell run on the country’s highways and relating the latest tales about the record fines being dished out by the traffic police.

After a brief respite, this ritual resumes around the Easter school holidays. And once that is over we again start looking towards the next festive season to do exactly the same thing.

It is all rather depressing stuff. Yet we seem to relish observing this murderous sport and then jabbering on about it ad nauseam as though we were discussing some phenomenon over which we have no control. Unlike poverty, joblessness and infectious diseases, this is one problem where government policy, law enforcement and the cooperation of industry players can have an immediate impact. But despite all the stern warnings, bright billboards and clever media campaigns, we are just not having any impact on the behaviour of road users.

The government’s Arrive Alive campaign, which has over the past five years gobbled up millions of rands, seems to be having little impact on the accident rate — even during the calmer periods of the year.

The country’s army of more than 12 000 traffic officers, whose prime function seems to be to act as the revenue collection arm of municipalities, is achieving little success in getting road users to obey basic laws.

Bus and taxi organisations, which clamour for state subsidies and make lofty promises at their regular conferences, exercise little influence over what seem to be deliberate law-breaking practices among their members.

In short, the mechanisms and institutions for dealing with road carnage are there, but those who are supposed to make use of them do not seem to want to do much beyond mouthing off and passing the buck.

So where should we start? Well, right at the top.

Inasmuch as it is fashionable to lay the blame for the death of Aids-infected babies at the door of Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, it is about time Transport Minister Abdullah Omar took personal responsibility for the carnage on our roads. It is simply not good enough for him and his officials to point fingers at badly trained traffic cops and irresponsible drivers. When Omar goes to bed at night it must not be the droning sound of his own voice that puts him to sleep, but the wails of families who have lost their loved ones that keep him awake.

If there is one New Year resolution he must make, it is that 2003 is the year the hand-wringing stops and he will begin to take seriously the death and destruction that occurs on his roads.

Then maybe in 12 months’ time we will be able to enter the New Year indulging in our unassailable sentiment of optimism that is always blighted by the deathly festive-season ritual.

Matric misery

The appalling pressure the matric examinations annually put on the country’s schoolchildren, their parents and their teachers took on tragic dimensions this week when two Western Cape teenagers killed themselves after learning that they had failed.

This horrifying news has, to say the least, soured the circus Minister of Education Kader Asmal presided over last week in a lengthy, over-excited panegyric on national television. To their massive discredit, many commentators simply joined the circus, taking their cue from the minister’s political determination to put the glossiest of spins on the improvement in the pass rate.

In particular, the in fact questionable and politically motivated assumption that success in the matric exams indicates the robust health of the whole schooling system has now assumed the status of holy doctrine — a sacred truth, beyond debate.

Elsewhere in this edition, a sober analysis by respected educationist Professor Jonathan Jansen raises questions our political masters would prefer to have swept under the carpet.

Yes, the overall pass rate has improved — but how much of this is because learners are pressured into writing subjects at the standard grade? And yes, there was an increase (though minute) in the number of exemptions (that is, matric passes allowing entry to tertiary study), but what about the staggering 83% of learners — predominantly from disadvantaged schools — who did not achieve this level of passing? What now happens to them?

The dismal fact is that we are stuck with this largely pointless and hugely stressful exercise for a good few years yet, before the new Further Education and Training Certificate (FETC) is implemented (when is still to be decided). The theory behind the FETC is that continuous assessment throughout the grade 12 year will take some of the weight off the final exam. It will also do away with the higher- and standard-grade distinction: a pass will provide automatic entry into tertiary education.

This looks wonderful on paper. But for continuous assessment to work, you need exceptionally well-trained teachers — and there’s the rub. Teacher unions and others have been sounding the alarm bells for months about this, and the word “crisis” is repeatedly used. From the government, though, has come bland denials and soothing rhetoric.

So how much more needless suffering are we going to inflict on the country’s children, and for what purpose?

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