Learning to drive in a new country is an easy time to make mistakes. Yesterday, my unfamiliarity with a new neighborhood led to my being attacked while I was in my car. Happily, it appears no real damage took place, other than the shattering of my nerves.
My goal was to reach a school in the Salt River district of Cape Town, where I was meeting a friend for lunch. I had examined the map several times before starting my drive; my plan was to take the N1 to the M5, then popping off onto Cannon Street to connect with Voortrekker Rd (also called the R102), which would take me very close to my destination. What I failed to notice was that southbound side of Cannon is called Koeberg, so I thought I must have taken the wrong exit. I passed a large store devoted to “Silencers,” and I was still puzzling over the use of this term for a car muffler rather than an accessory for handguns when I reached Voortrekker. I saw only the signs for “R102,” so I missed the turn. Instead I turned right on Berkley, but that popped me back onto the M5, heading right back to the N1. I would surely be late, and I started sweating a bit.
On the N1, I continued to the next exit West, this time for the M176. It started out quite promisingly, being a major street that headed south into a region called “Woodstock” (see map below). The trouble came as I crossed the R102 (My second time to miss Voortrekker). I was directed by a sign to drive straight ahead on Church Street in order to make contact with the M4, a major highway that would pass near where I would meet my friend. I grappled with my phone to contact my friend, since I was no longer sure of my location.
Church Street, though, rapidly dwindles to rather minor street, and it didn’t have a traffic light (“robot”) to help people turn onto the M4 (there called Victoria Rd). I should also say that Victoria is incredibly crowded around noon on a Saturday. Turning left should be pretty easy here, but there were no breaks in the traffic flow for me to pop onto Victoria. I paused as around five cars drove past; it was incredibly congested, and green lights were no guarantee that traffic would move.
That’s when the bozo behind me became agitated. Since everyone in that neighborhood was “hooting” a car horn, I first noticed him when he revved his engine and jolted up beside me to my right (in the lane for traffic going the other direction). He shouted something, hooted some more, and then forced his car ahead into the busy traffic of Victoria, turning left in front of my car. I pulled into the astonished gap behind him.
Within fifty feet, he had stopped at a red robot. I slowed to a stop behind him and raised my middle finger at him inside my car. Whether or not he saw the finger, he wasn’t done punishing me for my slow turn yet. He leaped out of his car and stalked toward my driver’s side door, yelling something incoherent. I did a quick check around me; the lane to the left was temporarily open, and the light for the intersection had turned green. The young, angry man connected with a wild kick at my driver’s side door, I yelled something creatively obscene concerning his behavior with farm animals (my poor friend was listening to this second-hand on the phone, which I had thrown into the passenger’s seat), gunned the engine, and shot through the intersection.
In not very much time, the bozo jetted by my car again, but he did not get out. I slowed to let another car turn onto Victoria between us. Then I started thinking about accountability. The bozo pulled far enough ahead of the car between us for me to read his license plate. It was a silver or white Volkswagen Polo (agitation does strange things for our perceptions). Just after reading his plate, I saw a police officer at the road side, and I hollered that the driver of that car had kicked my car. He sauntered forward (traffic was still quite a mess), but I didn’t see any other outcome. Soon I turned left to reach my friend, fifteen minutes late, and I was still shuddering something awful when I met her.
This was easily the worst experience I have had behind the wheel in South Africa, but it’s hardly my only interaction with a pedestrian. When I was driving a night in the Pinelands, a vagrant stood in the middle of my lane until I slowed, then aggressively tried to panhandle me from the driver’s window as I jetted away. Most major intersections have beggars, newspaper salesmen, or crap salesmen standing between the lanes. One beggar that I frequently see near my work is a child, probably of middle-school age. Jaywalkers are everywhere, even on major highways like the N1 or N2. The traffic laws of South Africa are very clear, though, that hitting a pedestrian is always the driver’s fault, even if the pedestrian was behaving in a patently unsafe manner.
Driving on the left is certainly an adjustment, and I know that driving is not my strongest suit. I have made the mistake of reverting to the right on a couple of occasions. The first was when I was in a large parking lot, and the second happened last week when I was driving down what was ostensibly a two-lane road but which had been blocked by a continuous row of parked cars down the left side. I pulled into the open margin on the right to let an oncoming car by, and they thought that was deeply weird. I always have to think carefully about popping onto the N1 or N2 since I will be merging on from the left rather than from the right. Generally, driving on the left becomes habitual because that’s where other cars going your direction may be found.
It’s also worth knowing that a very wide variety of cars may be found on the roads here. Seeing “bakkies” (trucks) loaded with passengers in the truck bed is very common, and some bakkies and cars are so heavily loaded that they cannot accelerate well. The road-worthiness of many vehicles is dubious; seeing a car trailing a blue cloud of smoke is commonplace. As a result, the N1 may have an upper speed limit of 120 kph in some places and yet have a slow left lane of 80 kph. That slow crowd has been my saving grace as I adjust to driving here. Handling the high winds of twilight is definitely easier at a slower speed. Motorcycles and night-time drag racers have been my bane. One never really knows when changing lanes is safe, because a motorcyclist may appear with no warning, traveling 20 kph or more above the speed of other traffic. Some of the courier service motorcycles carry wide boxes behind the seat; I imagine one will someday snap off my side mirror.
My part of town has many traffic light “robots,” in some places with only fifty meters separating them. Intersections have lights on the near side and on the far side, as well, which adds to the profusion. It is not legal to turn left after stopping at a red robot. Instead one must wait for a green light or a left arrow light. That said, people vary in their deference to traffic signals. You will commonly see people cheating into the intersection before the light has managed to turn green. The yellow lights are sufficiently rapid that you will almost always see someone dashing across the intersection or completing a right turn after the light has gone red.
At base, I would say that traffic laws in South Africa are descriptive rather than proscriptive. Allowing motorcycles to drive between lanes, for example, makes the roads more dangerous for everyone. Because people buy motorcycles precisely to take advantage of this maneuver, the traffic laws have been adjusted to describe this. It’s not safe for pedestrians to be wandering around on the N1 or N2, but it’s going to happen, especially since some of the major townships are traversed by the N2. As South Africa becomes more established, with people moving from informal settlements to townships to government housing, it may be that clearer boundaries are raised.