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South Africa: Drunk driving a growing worry

Death of Nelson Mandela's great-granddaughter highlights severe problem.

Car crash
South Africa faces a growing problem of crashes caused by drunk drivers. (Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images)

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.