Robots and Condoms

No, this isn’t some perverse fantasy of mine, in case you were wondering if I’d gone off my rocker. It’s just that the two of them – robots and condoms – go perfectly together if you put them in the context of South African governance. Bear with me and I’ll tell you why.

I came across and article in the New York Times the other day about a mass recall of condoms issued by the ANC during their recent 100-year celebrations because some of them had been found to be faulty. 1.35 million to be exact.

In a country where AIDS has disrupted so many families this is no laughing matter, but all I could think of when I was reading this (after briefly trying to envision the logistics of handing out 1.35 million condoms) was this: Why expect condoms to work if traffic lights don’t? So people can go and practice safe sex just to get killed afterwards on a road that is anything but safe?

It’s the beginning of February and the year is about five weeks old. For at least three out of those five weeks, one or several of the traffic lights – called robots in South African lingo – on the short stretch of William Nicol between us and the highway were out of commission. The one at Fourways Crossing came on briefly for a half day about mid-January, then was out again. There is a robot on Witkoppen that hasn’t been working for three months.

A typical South African road scene, with robot out in the background.

To understand what this means for safety, you have to know that when a robot breaks down here, no one comes to direct traffic. Or at least only rarely. There you will find yourself at a 6-way highway interchange, trying to figure out in which order everyone is moving to see when it might be your turn. Often you only get across by making a bold move, pursued by furious honking. I have to say, I’m actually impressed by how well this lawless mess usually works out, but it’s still no way for a country that boasts the largest and most modern economy of an entire continent.

No one really seems to know why the robots break so much more often than elsewhere. ¬†There is definitely a correlation with rain. Leaky robots? Just like leaky condoms, right? Or perhaps it’s the lightening typically coming with the rain here in Joburg. Some say it’s the cables being stolen, which would also explain why the robots hardly ever even blink red, as they should when malfunctioning. Another theory is that robots run on SIM cards instead of being hard wired, and that those are stolen to be used for phone banking transactions.

Whatever the reason, Joburg’s dead robots are a huge annoyance most of the time, bringing already slow traffic during rush-hour to a complete standstill, but they also pose a danger. At night you simply miss them altogether, and sometimes they are only half malfunctioning, with one side showing green while the other is out. If you recall, I’ve written THAT story and how it ended already. If you’re an expat worried about moving to South Africa because of its crime rate, think again. The real danger here are traffic accidents, not muggings or break-ins.

South Africa seems to have a quality problem. Whether it is ensuring that there is a system in place whereby robots are monitored and maintained around the clock or making sure condoms don’t rip, somebody is not doing their job. In the case of robots, their breaking down is one thing, but the inability (or frankly unwillingness) of city officials to implement a quick response system is another.

In a country with one of the highest road accident rates, you would think that more effort on the government’s behalf would be spent on ensuring working robots at all times, and dispatching traffic cops ASAP – after all, there are bazillions of them running radar traps, so why not just move the guy sitting under the bridge with his radar gun to the next intersection? – if one is reported broken. Yes, I suppose you can put this in perspective by looking at other countries that are even worse off. Traffic in India seems to be completely lawless from what I’ve heard, and someone told me in Zimbabwe they steal the colored covers of traffic lights, so that you can’t distinguish green from yellow and red.

But this is South Africa. A name that should evoke pride among its people and envy in its neighbors. Lately, the emotion I’ve mostly had about South Africa is shame.

And im sure those unfortunate men who found themselves looking at a ripped condom were harboring feelings of an entirely different magnitude.

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