As South Africans, we are used to the sight of people being transported on the back of bakkies. Sometimes, these bakkies have a canopy and people are wedged in like tinned sardines. Other times there is no canopy and people sit, stand or lie depending on space availability.
The canopy-less option is usually preferred as the transporter gets more bodies onto the vehicle and the passengers get some fresh air. Safety is not a consideration. These bakkie-taxis as they are affectionately known transport children to and from school and workers to and from work. They sometimes have 2 or 3 people, they sometimes have 22 or 23 people. As far as one can make out the maximum number of people that can be transported on the back of a bakkie is mostly determined by how many people need to be transported.
Apparently, thousands of people – many of them children – die each year because of over-crowded bakkies and taxis. Parent24 editor Sophia Swanepoel argues that: “If all kids 3 and under should legally be strapped into car seats and all passengers should wear seat belts, then how can it still be legal to transport people, including children, on the back of a bakkie?”
Well, the good news is that – as of 11 May 2017 – it isn’t legal. Well, kind of isn’t. An article on Wheels 24 states that: “In terms of regulation 250 of the National Road Traffic Act (NRTA), from Thursday (11 May) no person will be allowed to transport children in the goods compartment of a vehicle for reward.” So, in short, it’s okay for children to carry on dying because of this frankly barbaric practise that perpetuates inequality, if the driver doesn’t get paid for it. Apparently, the Department of Transport has lauded this as a “giant step in the right direction for road safety.”
There are other elements to regulation 250, for example if you are transporting people on the back of a bakkie (for no pay of course) and they are seated, there must be a minimum 35 cm enclosure above the sitting area. If they are standing, the enclosure must be at least 95cm’s above standing area. So, if you are sitting, you have just over one school ruler’s protection between you and doom. If you are standing, you have 3. Remember, you are not sitting or standing with any form of restraint.
Now as I mentioned above, it is illegal to drive in a car without a seat belt and your baby must be strapped into a car seat. So, the conclusion must be drawn that we have two sets of road rules in our country; one for the poor and one for the rich. This is very considerate of us really because after all, the applause for these ground-breaking new regulations is that they will save lives. But it seems that these lives don’t matter quite as much as rich lives as if they did, transportation of people on the back of bakkies would require at the very least, some kind of seat belt for adults and some kind of car seat for children. Better yet, it would be banned altogether.
But of course, critics of this tell us that that can’t happen because bakkie-taxis are an essential part of the transport mix in our country. For example, if you are a parent living in an informal or rural area, you may need to make a decision as to whether you want your child safe or in school. If the latter, then you will likely need to put their lives at risk by transporting them on a bakkie-taxi.
We must not accept this. And we must not accept that legislators must legislate to accommodate a total lack of services for our most vulnerable citizens. Transporting people on the back of bakkies is a structural inequality of our country that is so much a part of our culture, we don’t even notice it anymore.
I can accept that it will take time and money to correct such gross inequality and indignity but in the meantime, we can become far more creative about how we keep our people safe.
If you are reading this and you are an engineer or an inventor of sorts, I would invite you to create a simple, cost-effective restraint for adults and children sitting or standing on the back of bakkies. This should be co-funded by government and vehicle manufactures. Coupled with strict enforcement of maximum numbers of passengers this would save thousands of lives as it would now be illegal for passengers to be unrestrained.
And by the way, let’s work on this restraint being dignifying. We also cannot – even in the interests of safety – accept the inequality of human beings being packed onto the backs of bakkies like farm animals or people off to a death camp.
Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency.
His writing is dedicated to the memory of Anene Booysens and Emmanuel Josias Sithole.