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OPINION: Raging against the new normal

Over the past month, I've busied myself really getting to know everything I could about an issue that impacts Joburgers in a big way. Traffic lights. Robots. Signals. Call them what you like. Those yellow poles and plastic signal heads get motorists in the city worked up like few other things can, barring perhaps window washers and potholes. During this time I've become really observant about the state of traffic lights and have noticed just how many are either black, out of sync, flashing red or knocked over. During most of my journeys, at least half of the intersections I pass through are out of action in one way or another. And I know I'm not alone in this.

I had a lot of my own questions going into this investigation - some that have been echoed on social media over the past few days. Why aren't there more solar powered intersections to keep the lights on during load shedding? Who sets the clocks on the robots and keeps them in sync? Why do the lights go out when water falls from the sky? Why don't they just build circles instead of putting up lights? What is being done about cracking down on those who are buying copper cables to kill the market for stolen cables? Where the hell are the metro police cops to manage the traffic?

So I got to work interviewing councilors, motorists, 'trafficologists', experts, technicians, the JRA, City Power and the JMPD, amongst others. Running up and down gridlocked roads in the heat of the day shoving a microphone through open car windows, I soon got the sense from Joe Public that broken traffic lights have become part of their lives. Sure, people were angry and irritated and frustrated, but this was the new normal and they were just so used to it. This is a familiar refrain in South Africa - we get so used to load shedding, so used to corruption, so used to incompetence, that we just become indifferent and complacent about it. It just is what it is.

I then spent two days with the Johannesburg Roads Agency (JRA) chatting to employees about what is going on behind the scenes and what they're doing to solve all the problems. They were remarkably transparent and open, allowing me full access to anyone I wanted to speak to, from Charles Mkhambi, the technician who has been driving out to fix robots for 32 years now, to Esther Schmidt, who is the woman responsible for planning where the signals are put up and how their clocks are synchronised.

You may roll your eyes or chortle cynically, but the overwhelming sense I got from all the JRA members I spoke to, was that they are deeply passionate about what they do. Every single one mentioned how they feel they have the opportunity to change motorists' lives by keeping the lights working. They invite criticism, encourage feedback and desperately want interaction from the public. So much so that they have proactively developed an innovative and very effective app to help report faults and other road problems in the city. The problem, however, is that some motorists have largely accepted that the traffic lights are going to be broken, because it's the new normal, so they aren't bothered to log faults.

Despite all the JRA folks saying the right thing and sending the correct message, there is still a disconnect for me. They're passionate and eager and keen - but the lights are still out. I get the sense that they're just farting against thunder. As they get one back up and running, another one goes out. They'll say this is because of a legacy of old equipment and some cables are up to 70 years old. However, they are replacing these and upgrading all their hardware. They'll also say that vandals are hitting them hard and there's no silver bullet to remedy cable theft. They're putting up CCTV cameras and motion detectors, installing huge metal boxes to protect batteries and have hired expensive private security companies.

What they really need is more money and a bigger budget. There are only 14 technicians in the city capable of fixing traffic lights (only between five and seven are working this week because there's a strike). They need to get all those ancient paper and lead cables out the ground so that a downpour doesn't mean the robots will immediately go on the blink. They need to expand their infrastructure protection unit - currently only existing of one member - so that they can completely eradicate vandalism.

It's not ok that criminals think they can sommer saw down a traffic pole or dig up a cable with a pick axe in full view of the public. What they also really need is for the public to care and to continue to care. We have to keep the pressure up, report the faults when the traffic lights are out and to shout loudly when vandalism happens. That's our infrastructure that is being stolen and our lives that are being impacted negatively.

It's not ok that the traffic lights are out. It should not be the new normal and we must not be complacent and indifferent about it. We must be angry that the robots are not working.

Click here to interact with EWN's special feature on Joburg's traffic light crisis.

Mandy Wiener is a freelance journalist and author working for Eyewitness News . Follow her on Twitter: @mandywiener

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