Red lights and mixed signals


I see it in the red lights.

I see it in the blank expressions of the people in their cars, carefully ignoring my existence, as they sail through the intersection. Nothing to see. Didn’t happen. And if it did, well, everyone’s doing it nowadays.

I don’t know if the same thing is happening in South Africa’s other cities, but in Cape Town we’ve subsided past some kind of tipping point.

A few years ago, if someone ran a red traffic light you’d huff and puff and hoot.No longer. These days you assume that at least two cars are going to cruise through. Being five or six car-lengths from an amber light is no longer an invitation to slow down. And so, when the light turns green for me, I sit patiently and wait for the small procession of entitled arseholes to pass.

It’s difficult to read their minds (partly because so few South African motorists have one) but it’s safe to assume that many of them are thinking two things as they bump serenely over the corpse of common decency.

The first is an angry thought that they mull over many times a day, namely, that they live in a country being destroyed by crime and corruption.

The second, less a thought than a comforting feeling, is that driving through a red light has nothing to do with either of the above.

Now I’m not suggesting that running a traffic light is a sign of societal collapse. There isn’t a fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse named “Being A Dick On The Roads”.

But this week, as I watched the light-runners cruise past, I was reminded again of all the petty crimes, the minor corruptions, that people indulge in every day; and how easily we absolve ourselves. I remembered which corruptions we object to and which we let slide. And I was reminded yet again that for a country with a fairly dogmatic view of right and wrong, our approach can be bizarrely haphazard.

Sometimes the hypocrisy is amusing. I once found myself in conversation with a lawyer who was explaining to my half-turned-away head that corruption was killing us. A week later it emerged that this self-righteous bore had been running a grubby little con on the side.

At other times, our collective tolerance feels shocking and self-destructive. For example, there are literally millions of rapists living in South Africa and yet our response to the war on women is to urge them to be more careful when they go out. In this country we tell women not to get raped because we resolutely refuse to tell men to stop raping. The national consensus seems to be that rape is a crime with a victim but no perpetrator.

But what about large-scale corruption? Surely this is one crime to which all South Africans respond with united and co-ordinated vigour?

Not even close.

The fact is that, for all our anger and frustration, we tolerate corruption. Want proof? Look at who’s in the Union Buildings. The party that perpetrated the Arms Deal is still in power. Listen to polite conversations about the 2010 World Cup construction cartels. The price-gouging co-conspirators are still forgiven as businesspeople “just trying to do business in an anti-business environment”.


Perhaps we forget the feeling of the thing. When you’re being battered with new revelations it’s hard to hold onto the old ones, and forgetting starts to feel a little like forgiving. The truth is that we huffed and puffed and hooted at the Arms Deal or some new corporate con, but we still waited, even though the light had turned green for us.

Remember that sense of letting it all slide? “That was terrible!” I fumed – but then what? I don’t know the law. I don’t want to be in government. I don’t know how construction companies work. So all I could do was try to look stern and say, “And if you ever do anything like that again, I’m going to get really cross!”

And Thabo Mbeki’s ANC heard my tinny little hooter – and a million like it – and heard the emptiness of the threats, and saw the complete absence of meaningful consequences; and Jacob Zuma and his litter of corporate piglets pinched themselves as they saw a fortune present itself to them on a tray.

No, in this country we praise right and denounce wrong, but I suspect that this might be self-soothing, a way to persuade ourselves that our home is a country and not simply a once-productive mine that has been abandoned by its former owners and is now slowly being sold for scrap. And mines are dirty places. You live near one long enough, you get dirty. It just happens, slowly, and to everybody.

Now, though, the red light is showing. So: stop or go?


First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail



  1. Tom, don’t feel like the Lone Ranger, or whoever the South African version of our solo, outlaw-fighting fictional icon might be. I live in an average 500,000-population city in the heartland of America, where we still say “good morning” to our neighbors, smile politely with “please and thank yous,” and sing hymns like good Protestants at Sunday services. Nonetheless, there seems to be a growing demographic of daring (or stupid) citizens who have also gone color blind to traffic signals. I mean it’s scary. A cautious driver like myself dares not venture out into the intersection just because my light says green for go. The Fifth Horsemen are out there, oblivious to the likelihood of T-boning me to death. I think we should suggest that this self-excused offense actually is “a sign of societal collapse.” If we self-absolve ourselves to tolerate a little evil, then might we not also condition our collective conscience to eventually entertain wickedness ad infinitum? Isn’t that how we got the Holocaust?


    1. Thanks for getting in touch, Michael. I think it might be a bit of a leap to go from running a light to the Holocaust (because I think most Nazis were probably law-abiding folks in most other respects – in fact they probably prided themselves on their honesty and how punctually they paid taxes, etc) but something definitely has happened. Is it a slow realization that policing is failing or toothless? Is it the rise of a more self-obsessed generation that thinks it can cherry-pick civic duties in the same way you can pick which apps you want to use? I don’t know. Look after yourself on those mean streets.

      Liked by 1 person

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