The irrationality of South Africans about cars has deep roots. Apartheid’s geography turned the car into a matchless resource for black people. Hour-long municipal bus or taxi journeys could be reduced by three-quarters. Goods purchased in white centres could be driven to townships and sold at a profit. A car expanded life chances, and enhanced human freedom by making social gatherings, funerals and economic opportunities accessible.

Anti-apartheid political leaders also enjoyed a deep love affair with their cars in the 1980s and early 1990s, when trade unionists and United Democratic Front activists spent a lot of time on the road. Returning exiles arrived at township rallies in three-car convoys, their often-dilapidated saloons fanning out and then screeching to an audience- thrilling halt near speakers’ podiums.

White South Africans were even more besotted with the motor car. In the early decades of the 20th century, cars symbolised the technological superiority of western civilisation. White car mania exploded in the 1950s and 1960s, however, when Europeans moved to the suburbs. Adopting North American patterns of residence and sociability, the new suburbanites became dependent on cars to access dispersed schools, shopping malls, movie theatres and churches.

Fuelled by company car schemes and burgeoning public servant motor pools, white SA became a world leader in automotive penetration, and the two-car family became a norm, or at least a realistic aspiration.

Today the car lies at the heart of a complex of pathologies. High speeds, alcohol and unroadworthy vehicles are a dangerous cocktail. As many as 16000 people a year are killed in road accidents that cost the economy R14bn. This tragedy is accompanied by significant environmental pollution and millions of labour hours lost in congestion.

Despite these drawbacks, the beloved car is still a protected species. The African National Congress (ANC) and opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) have laudable road transport proposals, on paper. Their policy documents reflect a sober awareness that urbanisation, an expanding and wealthier population, and growing economic activity will make massive demands on the road transport system in coming decades.

There is broad agreement that a safe, dignified and affordable public transport system must be created so poor families, desperate to escape taxis and trains, do not divert meagre household resources to buy cars.

The ANC, however, is enmeshed in a web of racial symbolism. Given slow advances in the delivery of many public services, and the refusal of whites to use public transport, the diffusion of cars to the black new middle class has developed symbolic significance.

As economically dominant whites signal status by buying high-performance cars, black business and political elites express their ostensible equality through these same symbols, and poor black people have been partly consoled by this expression. The Soviet joke, “the people walk while their representatives drive cars on their behalf”, captures some of this lamentable state of affairs.

The DA has meanwhile fallen into a symbolic racial trap of its own. First, it failed to take a stand against private sector motor-car materialism that obscenely persists at a time of mass retrenchments.

Second, ordinary DA members often conceive of improved public transport to keep the black middle class off white roads, rather than as a service they might themselves use. Meanwhile, the party assiduously advances the interests of these same suburban car owners and remains uneasy about fuel and environmental taxes to discourage high-performance and gas-guzzling vehicles.

When the Department of Minerals and Energy proposed an energy levy in 2007, DA spokesman Hendrik Schmidt voiced his party’s suspicion that this was “simply another money-making plan …. Until a comprehensive and efficient public transport system is in place,” Schmidt insisted, “most people have no alternative to cars.”

By “most people”, the DA presumably means most whites. The National Household Travel Survey released in 2005 found only 26% of South Africans had access to a car. Those earning less than R3000 a month (most blacks) had almost no access. Eighty percent of whites had driving licences against 10% of eligible black citizens.

The DA has failed to offer a coherent critique of wasteful car schemes for public servants and politicians. Elected leaders’ official cars should presumably meet criteria of dignity and security, but even the most senior would be more than adequately served by a pool system, and such a scheme would allow discounted bulk acquisition, standardised security, and economical maintenance. Scaling back of allowances across the public sector would be needed to maintain what is by nature a relational and hierarchical system.

The DA has focused almost entirely on the sumptuousness of particular ANC leaders’ cars. By ignoring the crass materialism of business people and the established middle class, it has perhaps inadvertently given the impression that black citizens, even democratically elected national political leaders, should not drive fancy cars, while whites, whose assets were amassed in the apartheid era, are morally entitled to.

– Butler teaches politics at Wits University.

DATED: 12th October 2009