John Lennon went on to sing that though the holes were rather small, they had to count them all and now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall. Well, in South Africa we have never counted the number of potholes we have on our roads. But if we did, they would probably fill the universe.
Three recent trips have convinced me that our minor roads may become impassable in the event of no action being taken. The first one involved driving down the road from Leandra to Standerton. Even though I was in my old trusty Landrover Discovery, I had to slow to a virtual halt twice in order to weave around a whole section of potholes. Moreover, the experience was made even more hazardous by the trucks that were belting down the road as though it were a motorway. What it must do to their tyres, heaven knows.
The second trip was around the side of the Pilanesburg National Park and the third was from Dullstroom to Lydenburg. In these two cases, it was the single, very deep pothole that you suddenly come across over the rise which created the danger.
There have been some marvellous pothole photographs doing the rounds on the internet, including one featuring a giraffe in a pothole with its head sticking out. But, seriously, how do we fix the problem? Speaking as a total amateur on road maintenance, I have three recommendations.
Firstly, no more tenderpreneurs who get contracts because of their connections instead of their skills as a cost-efficient service provider. On every road, we should have a regular billboard at intervals showing the name of the contractor, telephone number and person to contact. Just like an estate agent with a photograph as well. One has to create a line of accountability by knowing whose neck is on the block. If the road is dangerous, the company has to start repairing it within 24 hours.
Secondly, for the real country roads, we should do what they do in India – allocate stretches of the road to local communities to maintain at a fixed cost per year (not per pothole because that would create an incentive to enlarge the problem). They would be given the sand and stone required, and every day they would inspect the condition of the road to make the necessary repairs.
Thirdly, we have to improve our rail network to get more cargo moved by rail. If Warren Buffet is prepared to make the largest investment of his life in an American railroad, then this industry must have good prospects. Oil is becoming a scarce commodity, its price is bound to rise dramatically in the recovery and mass transport systems will once again be in vogue as a cheaper alternative to cars and trucks. Obviously, you will continue to need both modes of transport in order to maintain flexibility.
I may not be turning you on like John Lennon wanted to do in the song. But we must have the debate before our rural towns and villages are once again turned into isolated communities without access to markets; and we cannot travel from the cities to see them.