South Africa: Drunk driving a growing worry

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — When tragedy struck Nelson Mandela’s family on the eve of the World Cup, leaving his 13-year-old great-granddaughter dead, the police pointed the finger at a shockingly common cause: drunk driving.

Nearly three months later, the allegedly drunk driver is free on bail, the case has been postponed three times and activists say that South Africa is still ignoring the issue of drunk driving, one of the biggest killers in the country.

Deaths from road accidents are twice as high in South Africa as the global average, a result of drunk driving as well as speeding, aggressive driving and other factors.

Driving home after a night of drinking isn't usually a social taboo in South Africa, comparable to attitudes during the 1950s or 60s in the United States. Even drunk drivers who have caused deaths in South Africa will often face a lenient attitude from the public.

“Drunk driving is not considered a crime,” said Caro Smit, head of South Africans Against Drunk Driving, an organization she founded after her 23-year-old son was killed by an intoxicated driver.

“What people tend to say in South Africa is, ‘Oh, shame, the poor driver must feel terrible.’ But what about the family? What about her life and her friends and family?” Smit asked, referring to the death of Zenani Mandela.

“They say, for a parent — and I feel it — it’s like living with one of your limbs amputated. In South Africa they think about the driver and they forget about the person who was killed,” she said.

In a recent case that highlights the impervious attitude towards drunk driving, a high-profile businessman was found guilty of killing two young students and injuring numerous others when he sped through a red light while driving drunk in the rain. Sifiso Zulu showed no remorse during the trial, according to the magistrate and his lawyer had told the court that it was just a “tragic accident” and “no one wakes up in the morning with the intention of killing people on the road.” Zulu is still free and appealing his sentence.

Transport Minister S'bu Ndebele has warned that South Africa faces an "epidemic" in road deaths. The country has about 14,000 road fatalities a year, and some 60 percent of drivers killed in road crashes were under the influence of alcohol.

“We cannot continue treating road deaths as normal when we are facing death by design, death by human error, death through carelessness, death through drunkenness, all of which can be stopped,” Ndebele, whose own son was killed in a car crash, said in a statement.

“In fact, by 2015, it is estimated that road crashes will be the number one killer of children aged five to 14 in Africa, outstripping Malaria and HIV and AIDS,” he said.

Smit said that despite the prevalence of the drunk driving problem in South Africa, her organization struggles for funding.

“In a few years’ time, more people are going to be dying from car crashes than from HIV,” she said. “People are trying to save our children from HIV, only to have them die on the road.”

South Africa has strict laws against driving while under the influence of alcohol, and drivers can face up to 10 years in jail. But enforcement is sporadic and inconsistent. A World Health Organization report from 2009 on global road safety gave South Africa a mark of two out of 10 for enforcement of its drunk-driving laws.

Police roadblocks to check for intoxicated drivers are rare, and if caught, drivers can sometimes pay a bribe. Many drunk driving cases don’t make it to court, or are thrown out due to problems with the evidence.

A major problem is the testing of drunk drivers in South Africa. Blood samples, the most frequently used method, usually take more than six months to be tested because of backlogs at labs, causing huge delays at trials. Sometimes blood test results will disappear altogether, for a price.

Drunk driving charges against a famous soccer player in South Africa were thrown out recently because a blood sample wasn't presented to the court. Soccer legend Doctor Khumalo's BMW had crashed into a minibus taxi, and five people had testified that he smelled of liquor and appeared to be drunk. But charges were dismissed amid reports that his blood sample had been bungled.

In the United States, breathalyzers are the usual method of testing suspected drunk drivers. In an unusual move, South Africa’s biggest beer company has taken to providing police officers with breathalyzers, an attempt to improve prosecution rates and speed up convictions.

By the end of this year, South African Breweries will have funded 15 “Alcohol Evidence Centers” around the country that provide breathalyzers and other tools for police officers to use in enforcing drunk driving laws.

“We believe that a significant shift in mindset is required among those South African drivers who drink and we believe that this equipment is one of the most practical and effective ways to affect change among individuals and ultimately, society as a whole,” said SAB spokeswoman Robyn Chalmers.

“If you get caught, it then starts to change behavior,” said Smit, whose organization is pushing for repeat drunk drivers to have their cars fitted with an alcohol interlock device. Smit is also leading projects to educate young South Africans about alcohol consumption, in an attempt to change the mindset of the next generation.

“We are facing an enormous, enormous battle here,” she said.