The search to make sense of the tragic death of a young man and eight tourists

To assign blame is the job of a policeman, to look for reasons the work of the priest or the philosopher
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We reached the scene in driving rain. It was mountain rain. It swept off the face of the Drakensberg and smashed into our windscreen. We were forced to slow to a crawl for several miles. Going to the scene of a terrible crash, we did not want to become victims ourselves. Occasionally a figure would appear out of the murk, walking by the roadside. As so often in Africa, I thought of Aghostino Neto - the poet President of Angola - and his lines: "my people are walking/ always walking." We were about 10 minutes from Bergville the place where eight British tourists and a young South African lost their lives.

We reached the scene in driving rain. It was mountain rain. It swept off the face of the Drakensberg and smashed into our windscreen. We were forced to slow to a crawl for several miles. Going to the scene of a terrible crash, we did not want to become victims ourselves. Occasionally a figure would appear out of the murk, walking by the roadside. As so often in Africa, I thought of Aghostino Neto - the poet President of Angola - and his lines: "my people are walking/ always walking." We were about 10 minutes from Bergville the place where eight British tourists and a young South African lost their lives.

The scene was blanketed in darkness. A few lonely lights flickered in the distance, but we could see nothing. Come dawn and the rain had vanished. A glittering, hot sun rose over the mountains and the scene revealed itself. The road had been scarred by skid marks. There was a deep groove where the trailer of the minibus had overturned. We saw a sandal lying in the bush. Further up the road a boy's trainer, then pieces of glass and a pool of oil, the rubber gloves of emergency workers. A couple of farm workers were repairing the fence close to where the vehicle overturned.

The South African police appeared on the scene and began to take measurements. An Afrikaans-speaking inspector came up and told me he was used to dealing with accidents. Some 12,000 people lose their lives on the country's roads every year. The holiday periods are notorious. The country's submerged rages burst to the surface. Drivers speed and overtake on hairpin bends. The minibus taxis used by the majority of the population are routinely overcrowded. When they crash, the death toll is horrific.

For as long as I can remember, the government and the taxi operators have been at loggerheads over safety standards. There have been strikes and violent demonstrations. Taxi operators have fought bitter battles over the right to control routes in the main townships. Then there are the macho gunslingers. Shoot-outs between road-rage drivers are not uncommon. When I lived here in the early 1990s, two men in a Portuguese neighbourhood drew their weapons and opened fire. One of them was killed. These were members of a small, usually cohesive community, but still they were willing to shoot. A kind of madness reigns on the roads here.

My own theory is that the roads have become a kind of free-fire zone for all the anger and fear bottled up down the generations. A society which has lived so long behind different kinds of bars needs an outlet for its pent up emotions. For all the beauty - and I love it like no place on earth - it remains a country of too many violent surprises. But this crash was very different. It happened on one of the safest stretches of road in the country. The driver was travelling uphill and was not speeding. The British tourists in his bus were admiring the passing beauty of KwaZulu-Natal. They passed conical mud huts and herds of cattle, and beyond them great outcrops of rock, mountains and the ghosts of mountains. When 16-year-old Mandlakayise Miya stepped out in front of the bus, the driver swerved, but the attempt to miss the pedestrian sent his vehicle hurtling across the road. My South African friends are surprised by the amount of coverage in the British media. They have become somewhat inured to the mayhem on their roads. But, as I've said earlier, the Bergville crash is different from the South African norm. For the British tourists who died it was a moment of pure, terrible chance, as I discovered when I found the home of Mandlakayise Miya, the boy who caused the crash.

It didn't take long to reach his home. A small boy jumped into the car and said he'd take me "to the people of the crash". Mandlakayise grew up in a small, concrete house where the wind rattled the corrugated roof. The rusting hulk of a car sat in a field beside the house. There were a few cattle. Mandlakayise was one of five family members. They were poor people, like everybody else who lives in the small township of Langkloof. His older sister seemed seriously ill. She came out of the house wrapped in a blanket and could only manage the most frail of handshakes. Soon she began to shake and sob for her dead brother. His mother and father sat on the porch and told his older brother, Sandlasayise, to speak for the family. The older boy had worked in Johannesburg and could speak English. Here among rural Zulus there is a politeness that seems strangely out of place with the times. Sandlasayise was courteous, anxious to tell the truth about the life of his brother.

Mandlakayise had been suffering from mental problems from a young age, he said. He also used to get drunk. Had he ever been given any treatment, I asked? The police had told me the boy had only recently been released from hospital. But the brother was insistent. Mandlakayise had never been a patient at a psychiatric hospital. Mental illness raises complicated questions in rural African communities. Apart from anything else, there is a serious lack of facilities for treating the long-term mentally ill. In a country whose health system is still recovering from the trauma of apartheid (not to mention the current ravages of Aids) the problems of one young man in a small village might not have loomed very large.

"He would spend time with us, but then he would go to other houses in the area. Everybody knew him," he said. On Christmas eve his brother had gotten drunk and gone to the road to stand in front of cars. When he got drunk he would lie down and hope that a vehicle would crush him and he would die. The police had called to the family home and told them about Mandlakayise's erratic behaviour. Then, on New Year's Eve, he was drunk again and went back to the road. This time he succeeded in committing suicide, with devastating consequences.

I know that none of this is any consolation to those whose family members died in the Bergville crash, or to any of the families of the hundreds who have been killed on South Africa's roads in this holiday season. Of all the ways to lose a loved one, the random violent death of a road accident must be especially confounding. What can you say of such a tragedy? To assign blame is the job of the policeman, to look for reasons the work of the priest or the philosopher.

I thought of Brother Juniper in Thornton Wilder's The Bridge of San Luis Rey. The humble Franciscan looked into the lives of those who died when "the finest bridge in all Peru" collapsed, trying to divine some pattern that led them to that place at that time. In the end he concluded that he could find no plan that would make sense to the rational mind. The book's beautiful closing lines are the finest attempt at consolation in the face of death I have ever read: "There is a land of the living and a land of the dead / and the bridge is love / the only survival, the only meaning."

In the wake of Bergville they are, perhaps, the only words one can offer.

The writer is a BBC Special Correspondent

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