Maritzburg Mayhem

Pietermaritzburg, that burnished pearl of the midlands, introduced parking meters in the city last year. The idea was to free up bays occupied by motorists who ended up in the local mental asylum after forgetting where they had parked.

It’s not working. I am still suffering from post-traumatic stress after driving into the middle of Maritzburg at 5pm on a Friday. The city’s brilliant parking project is about as successful as a two-legged mouse in the hurdles at the Mouse Olympics, scheduled for Zurich next April.

Parking wasn’t an issue because the maelstrom of traffic made it impossible to get anywhere near the parking bays. From what I could make out, the lane alongside the parking bays was also being used for parking. Most of the time I had trouble ascertaining whether traffic was at a standstill or if everyone had simply stopped their cars and gone off shopping, drinking or murdering.

The entire population of a million people was on the streets. Well, apart from the twelve white residents up on the hillside who hadn’t been able to emigrate because they couldn’t find a way through the impenetrable snarl of cars, buses and taxis. One family had missed more than 1 600 flights since 1994.

I felt their eyes on me. Perhaps watching through a pair of World War II binoculars.

What the hell is he doing? Sheila! Come and look at this! There is a white man driving in the city!”

Sheila’s hand would fly to her mouth. “The poor devil! It’s Friday!” she would cry. “He doesn’t stand a chance. Go and help him, Gerald!”

Gerald would lower the binoculars and glower at her. If he were wearing a monocle, it would scrunch deeper into his eye socket. “I fought the Zulus in 1873. I’m not doing it again.”

A sob would burst from Sheila’s heaving yet dispassionate chest. “But, Gerald, he is a white man! He is one of us!”

Gerald would harrumph. “Probably a Boer. I fought those bastards, too, you know.”

I wanted to get to the far side but the city wouldn’t let me out. Every intersection was gridlocked. I began passing the same buildings I had seen half an hour earlier. I started to feel like that explorer who, coming upon his own tracks after walking for a month, went mad and started eating himself. I couldn’t do that. People would come up to me at the robots and ask for a piece.

Desperate for a beer, or any kind of sedative, really, I looked for a restaurant or a bar. A pavement café. A hotel. Anything. There was nothing. Just endless stretches of furniture shops, pharmacies and used car dealerships. Parts of the city were like the seventh circle of Dante’s Inferno.

But that was then and this is now. Businesses and government departments were hoping for free parking. They may as well have been hoping for the city to be restored to its former glory, not that it ever really had much to start with. A city hall made of red bricks. I mean, really. What were they thinking?

When it comes to gouging the citizenry for every cent they have, the council is at the top of its game. And they know, better than most, that you can’t give anything away for free in Africa unless you’re backed by a platoon of United Nations troops trained in crowd control.

Kwenza Khumalo, who works in the municipality’s safety and security department, said the entire parking meter project would collapse if exemptions were made. And the council would lose the staggering sum of R50 000 a month. This is what the meters generate for the city. I know car guards who earn that in a morning. Okay, so they’re not just watching cars. But still.

Khumalo said complaints over paying for parking would “die a natural death”. This is the philosophy that underpins our civil service. Ignore them and they will go away. It’s a remarkably effective strategy, especially in a country where the average attention span is three minutes.

And if the complaints don’t die a natural death, it could always be arranged that the complainants themselves die an unnatural death. This is, after all, a region in which hit men are cheap as chips and thick on the ground.

Pietermaritzburg is not a capital city – it’s a capital offence.


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