JOHANNESBURG – Not even former president Thabo Mbeki could escape the traffic chaos gridlock that ensued in the Joburg city centre on Friday.
Instead, the erstwhile statesman did the unthinkable. He walked.
Mbeki walked through the city smiling and waving, leaving behind hundreds of motorists hooting in frustration at the traffic chaos and bystanders surprised.
Mbeki and his wife Zanele had earlier weaved their way along Sauer Street, via Jeppe, in a motorcade of several cars with flashing blue lights.
They finally abandoned their ride when the cars tried to drive on the wrong side of the road down Pritchard Street.
Not a single traffic official was in sight along the route.
Three security personnel tried to redirect traffic, demanding that motorists give way.
But when this proved futile and there was nowhere to go, the Mbekis ditched their convoy in the middle of Pritchard Street and walked to the Joburg City Hall to attend the memorial service for ANC stalwart Reggie September.
Mbeki was the keynote speaker.
Simmonds and Albertina Sisulu roads were equally congested.
The traffic chaos on Friday was a continuation of problems seen in the past few weeks, such as a series of robots that have not been working for at least a fortnight and traffic lights which are out of sync.
These problems do not seem to relate to weather conditions.
Traffic chaos in the city has been exacerbated this week by clogged stormwater drains that cause roads to flood.
The drains in the south of the city are clogged because of rampant theft of metal grids.
The recent TomTom Traffic Index showed Joburg to be the most congested city in South Africa.
Joburg has engaged in a project to regenerate the central business district and it was Mbeki who, in 1997 when he was deputy president, announced his vision for Joburg as the “golden heartbeat of Africa”.
Officials from the City of Joburg were not available for comment yesterday but a city spokesperson said earlier this year that the city intended to spend R2 billion on fixing roads.
Mbeki alighted from his car wearing a black suit while his wife was wearing a black skirt and blouse.
Onlookers shouted in excitement and clapped at the sight of them. Mbeki waved in return.
With several guards by their side the couple walked two street blocks hand-in-hand to get to the City Hall.
Bystander Elisha Premhodge was outside the local Wimpy waiting for her fiancé when the former president walked past. He gave her a big wave and smile.
“I waved back and smiled at him,” she says.
“It was so nice that he didn’t just walk past and ignore us. He looked happy to be in the city.”
Joel Nkomo, who sells cigarettes and sweets alongside Luthuli House, also waved back.
“It’s the second time I’ve seen Mbeki walk down President Street,” he laughed.
“I saw him first when he was a deputy president walk past here. Yesterday (Friday) he smiled and waved at me. (Jacob) Zuma is more friendly than Mbeki but Mbeki is my favourite.”
An informal trader who sells traditional Zulu attire along President Street said: “I never would have seen him if all the security guards were not surrounding him.”
But as the fun died down the congestion remained and motorists continued hooting.