Fear and Loathing on Johannesburg Roads

Johannesburg traffic is everything they say it is, and more. Above all else there are three observations I make about traffic in this city on an almost daily basis.

Firstly, I sometimes get this suspicion that traffic is something of a living thing picking up some sort of karmic energy. The reason I say this is because it will conspire against you, always.  If you need to get home quite urgently, you’ll get stuck in a backlog on the highway and end up home 30 minutes later than normal. When trying to make sure you’re at a meeting on time and you leave an hour early, you can almost guarantee traffic will be fine and you’ll have to sit in your car for 40 minutes waiting for the meeting time.

The second observation is that people perplex me in traffic more than any other place. I mean really perplex me. The recklessness you see is just absurd, and I’m not focusing on minibus taxis here either, but all types of drivers and cars. Weaving through the highway traffic at 160km/h, driving on pavements, going 100 metres in the oncoming lane because you didn’t want to wait, driving at about 200km/h into Gilooly’s at night with your lights off.

The fact that people are willing to risk their lives in order to arrive somewhere two minutes earlier is what really mystifies me. And when I see this stuff I often try to find some deeper reasoning to understand this. Do people have a generally warped sense risk and reward? Can they not work out that an arrival five minutes later is generally a better idea than risking death? Or perhaps there’s an element of rebellious testosterone filled joy to this. As Henry Thoreau said, ‘All men lead lives of quiet desperation’. Maybe these guys feel boxed in by the regularness and blandness of life, whether by an unfulfilling job or an unfulfilling marriage, or whatever it might be. Possibly life in general. And so because of this act of playing with fire and upping the adrenaline a little while on the road is actually appealing, and a way letting out some boxed up energy.

Or maybe people are just plain fucking stupid?

Your drivers of sports / performance cars like Porsche’s or Ferrari’s are the most predictable morons in this regard as well. I often wonder whether the owner manuals of these cars have the words ‘MUST BE AN ANNOYING ASSHOLE TO DRIVE THIS CAR’ etched on the opening page. You see them doing things like racing around residential suburbs at 120km/h. I assume the fact that they can spend a million on a car means they’re willing to spend a few more million on attorney fees when they hit a child?

The third observation is the prevalence of anger. Everywhere. So much anger on the roads, behind the wheels of cars. I’ll admit, there’s a LOT of idiotic stuff that happens. And I’ll admit I do my fair share of hooting, mainly to let someone know that their act of idiocy is being duly noted by somebody. But beyond all this I feel like there’s this underlying sense of people ‘on edge’, with rage simmering within them, like a vicious dog that calmly follows you with its eyes as you walk past it in fear. I’ve had people losing their shit at me over the most trivial of things, and while they’re frothing and gesticulating, I’m still trying to work out why.

Perhaps the simple act of driving is just a fairly scary thing in Johannesburg that makes people uptight. Or maybe there’s more to it. Maybe we’re just angry in general? Angry at how difficult life can be, angry with our jobs, our family, our situations, our debt levels, the heat, how busy we are, or whatever it might be. Taking it out on some random people you’ll never see again and don’t have to speak to maybe makes a bit of sense then. Maybe our good friend ‘quiet desperation’ is playing a role here too. Or could it be that we’re scared. Is that ‘quiet desperation’ actually more like a ‘quiet fear’. There is so much to scare us in this world and in this life. And as we know, the snake usually strikes out of fear.

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