On Human Rights Day I had a near-death experience. I was on the highway - about to exercise my right to work - when a white Mazda bakkie came up from behind. The driver followed so close behind I was unable to see his window in my rear-view mirror. Passing the traffic, I stayed in the right-hand lane. But before I knew it, the driver of the Mazda discovered a brand new lane on the N1 south. While it's not uncommon to see the odd taxi, bike or car cross the yellow line, the Mazda crossed the white line and moved in between myself and the concrete middle-man barrier.
A daring feat if I must say so myself, but equally irresponsible. Moments later, I could not help but wonder about the rationale that justified his arrogance. My reasoning is more of a leap - given my travel time - so please try and bear with me.
South Africa's Constitution is a widely celebrated document, still cited across the globe today. South Africans sit with a plethora of laws, all in line with the country's supreme law, while new legislation is often passed by parliament. Domestically, court rulings receive regular praise, and rightly so for one of the most important pillars of the democratic state. It might explain why more legislation is often government's go to response when a new problem arises. But given the country's on-going challenges, ignorant observers might suspect a shortage.
Every other crisis is met with a proposition of either amendments to existing laws, or the compiling of a brand new bill. Victory is then declared when said document is passed in Cape Town and signed in Pretoria. But South Africa's lawmakers, apart from the courts, seem to be working harder than any other arm of the state.
When road fatalities went up – yet again – over the 2016 December break the transport minister hinted at putting parliamentarians back to work. A similar situation played out in the wake of the deaths of more than 100 psychiatric patients in Gauteng. Similarly, new legislation is being considered to tackle cybercrimes, with the state security minister going as far as to suggest the regulation of social media. Social grants are the latest debacle to end up in court. While amending legislation has not been the immediate answer to this problem, shortly after my Fast and the Furious-like incident, President Jacob Zuma announced that government is considering changes to social welfare laws to further assist grant recipients.
But was it the law that failed psychiatric patients in Gauteng, the victims of road crashes or those who are targeted online? Or was it a case of the relevant institutions failing to adequately implement existing laws. Would those on the road who do not possess any form of motoring etiquette obey traffic laws if their actions led to harsher consequence, while the probability of escape remained equally high? Would protests turn as violent as they do as often as they do, and would police resort to force as quickly as they do if individuals were held accountable for every transgression even when acting in large groups?
This by now means is to suggest that South Africa’s wide range of issues will disappear as soon as existing legislation if effectively implemented. Neither can every proposed law or amendment be considered redundant and futile. But the continuous failure to implement existing legislation does speak to South Africans' complicated relationship with rules.
Deterrence is not solely determined by the severity of the consequences. The probability of said consequences actually following the initial incident is equally important. I imagine the public in general would tread somewhat more carefully if it was convinced that fines or other repercussions were not optional, and that injustice was not for sale. For what does it mean to charge someone with the death penalty for driving under the influence, if the consequences are bought away next to the road? The Constitutional Court would also not have to make Executive decisions to ensure that government delivers, if it willingly executed its duties as outlined in law. Other courts would not have to waste time with reversing the unlawful appointment of senior officials at state institutions or repeatedly resolve parastatal board disputes.
If this implementation problem stems from incapacity, should the state not perhaps focus on the job at hand before increasing the workload? But because of a passive approach to matters of governance and law enforcement – and in some instances an utter disregard for the law – the notion of accountability has become complicated at best.
It is for this reason that President Jacob Zuma was able to build a R240 million home - to the insult of millions of impoverished South Africans; why the social development minister refuses to accept any responsibility for almost driving South Africa's welfare state into the ground. It is due to ineffective policing that thieves can waltz into OR Tambo International Airport or the Office of the Chief Justice and walk away with whatever they desire. It is linked to that same reason that a man thought he could get away with threatening a woman with assault in front of her children in a family restaurant. And it is for this very reason that I spent a public holiday with a sore throat for expressing my anger at the reckless driving of the owner of a white Mazda bakkie.