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Navigating protests: How to avoid the rough stuff on SA roads

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Civil unrest and protests accompanied by violence, obstruction and destruction are a sad, but common reality in South Africa.

Worryingly for motorists, these events are frequently staged on some of the busiest urban streets and even national roads, in and around cities and towns across the country.

And even more disturbing is that the COVID-19 pandemic appears to have had little effect on the country’s appetite for protests.

Protests spill onto streets despite the pandemic

Quoting Police Minister Bheki Cele, Defenceweb‘s Guy Martin recently reported that South Africa had recorded more than 900 service delivery protests in just six months, between 1 August 2020 and 31 January  this year — and that the pandemic had done little to stop them.

Cele, who provided the figures in response to parliamentary questions, reported that police had made a total of 657 protest-related arrests during the same period “in which illegal road closures were erected that infringed on the constitutional right of freedom of movement”.

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Martin also reported that the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) Africa last year warned that “protests in South Africa are here to stay”.

And, according to the Institute for Security Studies Protest and Public Violence Monitor — which has been monitoring protests since 2013 — the number of protests across South Africa over the past seven years averages out at 2.26 per day.

Motorists are in the firing line

Being caught up in a violent protest in South Africa is certainly no joke for any motorist or their passengers, who could experience anything from disruptive inconvenience to severe trauma, damage to property and even physical violence.

Accordingly, ordinary motorists and all other road users are advised to consider all available preventative measures and potential steps to take when encountering a protest being held on a road.

Prevention is still the best form of protection

While it may well be obvious, but it can’t be overstated: The best way to protect yourself and your passengers is to simply avoid areas affected by unrest at all costs.

If you are planning a trip, it will also help to keep a close watch on media services and even social media in order to be aware of any unrest or protests taking place or which may potentially take place on or near your route.

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What the experts advise

South African driver training specialists MasterDrive recently published the following tips around protests for motorists. Provided by managing director Eugene Herbert, MasterDrive agrees that avoiding protests is the first and best step to take.

  • When and wherever possible, first try to find routes that go around the protest and avoid it entirely;
  • If caught up in unrest, avoid any negative engagement with protestors and avoid inciting any further conflict;
  • Pay attention to and obey authorities at a protest scene as they are trained to defuse the situation and protect people from harm;
  • Should protestors begin damaging vehicles, turn your vehicle around where it is possible and lawful and without endangering yourself, your passengers or other motorists;
  • Always remember that while you may want to prevent any damage to your vehicle, the safety of your passengers and yourself should remain the most important priority;
  • Be vigilant and constantly aware of your surroundings. Look out for people gathering at the side of the road or on bridges to avoid being caught up in protest action if it spreads;
  • Drive while watching 12 seconds ahead of you so that you can identify any volatile situations immediately;
  • Should you be forced to stop or slow down because of a protest, be careful not to block yourself in;
  • Always leave ample room between yourself and the car ahead of you and try to identify an escape route. This can help you avoid being trapped in by traffic and give you an option to escape when a safe opportunity arises;
  • While vehicle occupants should be prepared and ready to get out of a car quickly if necessary, drivers should also be aware that the car is normally the safest place to be during a protest; and
  • Key to navigating volatile situations on the road is to always remain calm.
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Herbert concludes that while avoiding unrest completely remains the best options for drivers, motorists should aim to never to be surprised by a volatile event on the roads and most importantly, South African drivers should be prepared for every scenario.

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