Late last year a family member packed all his belongings into a van, tucked in his two young daughters and drove from KwaZulu-Natal up to Johannesburg.
Somewhere near the Heidelberg toll gate, just as his journey was nearing an end, a car carrying four drunk matriculants careened into the back of the van, sending it flipping over and crashing upside down onto the grassed middle section of the N3 highway.
The girls, both under the age of eight, were flung out on to the road and the family’s belongings lay scattered and broken. The oldest girl needed 50 stitches along her torso and it was considered a miracle that she survived: a centimetre to the left and the glass shards would have pierced a lung and possibly killed her.
What happened to the young men? If it wasn’t for the toll gate a few kilometres ahead and a truck driver that stopped to assist the family, they may have driven off.
The police arrived at the scene. But none of the four young men would confess to being the driver. Did money change hands? We can’t say for sure. We do know that the police did not administer an alcohol test, even though the truck driver witnessed beer bottles being thrown out of the vehicle soon after it stopped.
Among the world’s heaviest drinkers
I was reminded of the pain of that incident after hearing about Top Billing presenter Simba Mhere’s death in the early hours of Saturday morning. Mhere was en route to the OR Tambo International Airport to attend the J&B Met in Cape Town.
He was killed in an accident that happened along William Nicol Drive in Fourways, Johannesburg, just after 5am.
Police spokesperson Superintendent Edna Mamonyane told reporters: “A VW Polo had got off the N1 in Fourways, crossed over the middle island and crashed into Simba’s side. Simba was driving and the strong impact killed Simba and a passenger seated up front.”
It does not require a major leap of logic to imagine that the driver, who will be charged with culpable homicide and reckless and negligent driving, was drunk.
On Sunday, City Press reported that the World Health Organisation had ranked South Africa at number four on a list of the world’s heaviest drinkers. We came in just behind Kazakhstan, which was preceded by Mexico and Russia.
The article added that the Medical Research Council showed that our country lost about R300-billion in 2009 as a result of alcohol abuse.
About R38-billion of that was used to deal with the social ills associated with the harmful use of alcohol. These included deaths, illnesses, disabilities and unintentional injuries that included road traffic accidents, as well as crime.
The International Transport Forum’s latest Road Safety Annual Report, released in the middle of last year, ranked South Africa the worst out of 36 other countries when it came to the number of road fatalities. But it’s easy to dismiss these figures as statistics, as something that happens to other people, somewhere out there.
What we have failed to do as a nation is to make it personal. When last have we asked ourselves whether we’re part of the problem? When last have we risked driving home after having had a few too many to drink because, sod it, why not? You’ve done it before and everything turned out just fine.
People are often surprised when I tell them I gave up drinking alcohol completely for the four years I was at Rhodes University. Why? Because before I went to university I had become too dependent on alcohol to have fun or to help alleviate my problems.
I knew the university had a reputation for heavy drinking and a culture that normalised it. I realised I was susceptible to getting sucked into this culture and decided that if I couldn’t be sure of drinking in moderation I would rather avoid it altogether. My years at Rhodes were some of the best years of my life – and I learned one didn’t need alcohol to have a good time.
A form of desperate escapism
When I graduated and moved to Cape Town I couldn’t resist the gorgeous wines on offer and began drinking in an environment where alcohol was something to be savoured and enjoyed – not something one downed in order to lose oneself.
And that’s the difference. Why do we, as a nation, drink as much as we do? Given the problems an average South African faces, it’s not difficult to see why: unemployment, Aids, sexual abuse and absent fathers are just some of the bigger issues out there.
It’s clear that the kind of drinking we’re doing – the kind of drinking that may well have killed Simba Mhere – is a form of desperate escapism. Our problems are perhaps not the worst in the world, but we’ve developed a culture – across race and class as far as I can tell – that has done a similar thing to us that happened at my university: we have normalised heavy drinking.
In a country as divided as ours, it’s awful to think that alcohol may be the one thing that unites us.
I hope that’s not the case. But before you mourn Mhere, think about your own standards for drinking and driving. And if you’re conscientious, don’t let your friends and family members get away with it. Just one drunk driving trip is one too many. Don’t do it.