/ 29 October 2021

Central Drakensberg’s deadly road is also killing businesses and jobs

Drakensberg, Kwazulu Natal
Drakensberg, KwaZulu-Natal (Photo by Hoberman Collection/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Darius Ndlovu picked up his wife and sister from work in the central Drakensberg and had just driven past Valley Bakery on the R600 when he swerved to avert a head-on collision with a vehicle that had veered onto his side of the road to avoid a pothole.

His vehicle rolled down an embankment into the river. He woke up in hospital to learn that his wife, Portia, had been killed. Ndlovu survived with minor injuries, while his sister, Francinah Ndlovu, and another passenger are still dealing with their injuries almost a year after the December 2020 accident.

Now, left alone to raise a son aged 12 and daughters aged 11 and 9, Ndlovu has a few choice words about the state of the severely potholed roads in the Okhahlamba Drakensberg Park Unesco World Heritage Site in KwaZulu-Natal. The region is popular with domestic and international tourists.

For Ndlovu, who works at the Outdo T/A Tyremart in Winterton, pleading with the provincial department of transport to repair the roads in the region is futile.

“I don’t know what I can say. I am trying. The big problem now is my kids are still young and I am a father and a wife at the house. I don’t know what I must do or where I can start to talk to them. I just know I want them to fix the roads,” Ndlovu said.

His cry echoes other pleas from residents, paramedics and tourism businesses in the central Drakensberg region, also known as Champagne Valley/Cathkin Park, just 23km from Winterton and some 30km from Bergville in the Okhahlamba local municipality.

Residents and local business owners have long been begging the transport department to fix the severely potholed R600 that runs into the valley to a myriad of tourism businesses on which more than 1 500 local jobs depend.

Some residents raised the issue at a recent public meeting, with Democratic Alliance  councillor Thys Janse van Rensburg, and the possibility of initiating a “tax revolt”. They said they would investigate whether they could withhold a portion of rates and taxes to fund the repair of the roads. But others who spoke to the Mail & Guardian this week were doubtful of the legality and distanced themselves from the proposal.

Megan Bedingham, vice-chairperson of Drakensberg Experience and owner of The Cavern Resort, said the condition of the roads was starting to harm businesses.

“The road is dangerous and if locals know the road they can slow down and avoid the potholes but as a visitor they don’t see the potholes and their cars get totally damaged. A family visiting got stranded on the side of the road for four hours because they hit a pothole and punctured two tyres,” Bedingham said.

“There are a lot of residents in the farming community who buy bags of tar and fill the potholes, it has been bad,” she said, adding that while the department of transport had fixed some potholes, the problem was ongoing.

Champagne Sports Resort general manager Andries Brink said the road his guests travel on is the same one his housekeeper lost a brother on in an accident.

Mark Pitout, who has owned the local tyre shops in Winterton and Ladysmith for the past 25 years, said he had never seen the roads in such a poor state. 

“Potholes are our ‘silent salesmen’ but it is heartbreaking to see people coming with their rims and tyres damaged. Tyres cost between R1 000 and R1 500 and then there is also damage to the car that needs to be fixed. What are we paying these taxes for? These are the questions one needs to ask and the people who are involved need to ensure our roads are maintained. Where are they and what are they doing? Every time I buy a litre of fuel tax is taken from that to repair the roads but where has that money gone?” Pitout wondered.

Farmer Joel Reeve regularly assists trucks and motorists who get stuck during the wet summer months when the dirt roads turn to “soup”.  

“These dirt roads used to get resurfaced every three or five years and it has been over 10 years now since they resurfaced them. They do send graders maybe twice a year to grade them but the problem is the top layer is gone,” he said.

“The roads totally collapsed in February this year to the point it was impassable and a stop sign was put there. Every time a 30 tonne lorry came down the road it would fall off, and to get a breakdown tow out costs R15 000 to R20 000, and that was happening four times a week. Every time smaller bakkies came off I was asked to help as I am the closest farm. I pulled out scores of vehicles.”

Paramedics 4 Life EMS director Dean Kirtley is concerned about the road hazard: “We have had two deaths so far as a result of potholes, on the R600 … In one accident the car came around a corner and the other swerved, hit the grass, flipped upside down and landed in the river. A local was rafting down the river, saw it and pulled out five people. They were extremely lucky, otherwise we would have had five dead,” Kirtley added.

KwaZulu-Natal department of transport spokesperson Kwanele Ncalane said the region’s roads were on the department’s radar as part of its comprehensive maintenance plan. 

“More than R3.1-billion in this financial year is allocated to maintenance. We are, however, aware and we admit that most of our roads have reached their lifespan and need to undergo regular maintenance,” Ncalane said. 

“We are trying so hard to strike a delicate balance between maintaining the existing road network and constructing new projects. If you have recently driven to KZN most major provincial roads are undergoing rehabilitation. The roads in question are part of the plan and the department is currently finalising internal processes to get those roads fixed. We also accept that those roads are important for provincial tourism.”

This article was possible due to the support of the German federal foreign office and the Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen (IFA) Zivik funding programme. The views presented in this article do not represent the views of the German federal foreign office nor the IFA.*