How (not) to cross the road in South Africa

We were in the centre of town this afternoon, when we witnessed one of those typical episodes that perfectly encapsulate the differences between visitors from Europe and America, and South African locals. I thought it might be instructive to tell you about it, in case you are planning to attend the 2010 Soccer World Cup – or to visit us for any other reason.

It happened at a traffic light.

A typical South African traffic light for pedestrians

To cross, or not to cross…

On our way out of town, we had stopped at the traffic light at the bottom of Buitengragt Street and the start of Eastern Boulevard, just at the intersection with Dock Road. It is a very large intersection and, not surprisingly, a number of people have been knocked down here or near here in the past.

While the green man was lit up on the traffic light, a wave of pedestrians surged across the intersection in front of the cars. Some were heading towards the Waterfront, but most were walking briskly into town, probably to catch the trains or buses to the suburbs.

The green man: You can cross safely now

While we waited for the light to change from red to green in our favour, a Big Issue seller, a young black man, approached two tourists, a young man and a young woman, wearing rucksacks and carrying a guidebook (a dead giveaway that they were tourists). Apart from that, they just looked European, possibly German. They waved him off, indicating that they didn’t want to buy his magazine.

Then they stood on the pavement, intently looking at the traffic light, where the red man was now flashing, which it does for a couple of seconds before it turns to a solid red man. Clearly, they were trying to decide whether there was enough time for them to cross the road.

The Big Issue seller was waving them on, indicating that there was plenty of time, and that they should cross, even though the red man had been flashing for a couple of seconds already.

The red man flashes a warning: Hurry up and get to the other side!

They dithered.

He was insistent, waving his hand emphatically.

The red man turned solid. He continued to urge them to walk across.

They stepped into the road.

Just then, the lights changed to green, and the rows of cars surged forward. They leapt back to safety.

It struck me that this little episode perfectly encapsulated the differences between visitors from overseas, who (are more likely to) obey the rules of the road, and local South Africans, who … er… don’t necessarily. I’m not saying that we all break the rules, but you probably shouldn’t take it for granted that we will obey them either, at least not all the time.


When we visited Germany a few years ago, we were utterly astounded at how well-behaved pedestrians were at intersections: Almost without exception, they would wait patiently for the little green man to be in their favour, before they ventured across the road.

We also noticed that they did not attempt to cross the road higgledy-piggledy by sprinting across at an angle or weaving between the cars, regardless of whether they have stopped for a light or are busy moving, waving their hands to signal drivers to slow down (which is what we tend to do here in South Africa). Instead, they crossed in an orderly fashion at pedestrian crossings, and only when the light was green for them.

If someone didn’t play by the rules, reproachful eyes were turned upon them. Gulp…. Social disapproval and public embarrassment sure can have a powerful effect! (I experienced this myself :-).)

I don’t think they do this because there are security cameras watching their every move, or because a siren might howl, or because a policeman might pounce on them and issue a spot fine – although, who knows, maybe that does happen sometimes.

No, I think they do it because they feel compelled to obey the rules of the road. And because they want to set a good example for their children. I sure do wish we had such an ingrained wish to play by the rules.


Similarly, in Ireland, we noticed that pedestrians were generally treated courteously: not just the elderly or pregnant ladies pushing a pram, but ‘normal’ people too. When someone was waiting to cross the road, drivers would usually slow down or even stop, and give them a chance to cross safely.

I was particularly impressed by this in Derry, where I had to leap out of the car in the rain to get a couple of snapshots of the famous murals – I was astounded when cars actually stopped to let me cross the road! Admittedly, this was near a pedestrian crossing, so perhaps this is one of the basic rules of driving: “Don’t knock over pedestrians! Even when they don’t cross the road at a zebra crossing!”

For us, this was an entirely foreign concept.

South Africa

Just in case you’re planning a trip to South Africa, for the 2010 Soccer World Cup, for instance, you should know that we don’t habitually stop at pedestrian crossings. Unless they are a zebra crossing with a traffic light. In fact, we may just accelerate and take aim…! 🙂

I’m kidding… Well, a little…

We really liked the Irish traffic lights: when the little green man is on, signalling that you can walk safely across, none of the other signals is green. So you can be pretty confident that you won’t be knocked down.

In South Africa, however, you will have to dodge around the cars turning the corner because they have the green light in their favour at the same time. According to the rules of the road, pedestrians are supposed to have the right of way, but in practice this almost never happens.

I always think that’s really stupid, and I wish our traffic signals would be re-designed so that the safety of pedestrians can be assured (even more so, given the impending influx of visitors for the World Cup!). Well… maybe ‘assured’ is asking a bit much. But ‘encouraged’ would be nice.

I feel the same way about the lack of turning signals at busy intersections: if it’s green for you to drive straight, most of the time it’ll be green for oncoming traffic too.

This traffic light has a turning signal: The flashing green arrow permits cars to turn right

So if you want to turn across the traffic, you will have to wait and wait and wait until there is a gap, causing a traffic jam behind you, and inevitably annoyed hooting and loud revving by those who feel you should have squeezed through that miniscule gap between the speeding cars.

The red arrow flashes a couple of times and then turns solid: Now you need to wait for a gap in the oncoming traffic before you can turn right

And the number of oncoming cars who race through the orange light as it turns red, and even though they can see the intersection is choked up with cars desperate to turn, always surprises me.

Manners, people, manners!

We also really liked the fact that, in Ireland, the light changes from red to orange to green, so that you can get your car into gear and ready to go. Why can’t we do that here?

Mind you, given our chronically impatient drivers, they’d probably start driving off when it’s still orange, even if it means colliding with all the people who are trying to slip through on the orange light from the other side. Sigh…

A solid green light: You may proceed!

Drive safely now!

5 thoughts on “How (not) to cross the road in South Africa

  1. This is a good set of tips for road-crossing in South Africa (and Europe!) It always makes me nervous to be in a foreign country and figure out the rule of the roads and sidewalks. It may be because I can hardly figure them out in the cities of OUR country. Now I can probably navigate in the woods with greater ease than most…but the cities…that’s a different thing.

  2. This was realy interesting. I love to learn about other cultures, behaviours, and how things can be done in other ways. Germany is a country known for its capability to follow rules and systems. We use to say -and expect-that things made in Germany is of high quality. Compared to Germany, the Danes are more relaxed, with good and bad consequences but compare to what you have described, we are polite as sundayschool children. (A saying about very polite behaviour).
    I understand that you wish the rules were followed a bit more. When you compared with the way it´s done here, it made me think about wich consequences it has,- to play by the rules at such level. The first thing that came to my mind was, that the drivers/pedestrians often trust the signals more than them self, they´ll expect the system to be responsible for everyones safety, and sometimes forget to see if it realy is ok to go. They are expecting to be able to do other things like talking in a mobile, having a discussion, thinking about plans for tomorrow,- and just rely on the signs and lights. Accidents happens because of this absent way to drive. You see that if anyone does unexpected things, this is realy dangerous, and that is why there will be a reaction. You would probably find it amusing, and strange, to see a person waiting for green light at a totaly empty street. But that´s how the rules is….we could use a little more of your style! 🙂

    • Well, Giiid, that was a VERY interesting and insightful comment! Thank you for explaining a little how things work in Denmark, at least as far as traffic is concerned.

      And yes, you are right, when we arrive at a red light on a totally empty street, particularly at night time, we don’t always wait for the light to turn green – especially if you can see clearly that there is no traffic going the other way. But that is also because here it is often quite dangerous to stop anywhere at night, because we have a very serious problem with car hijackings in all the large cities. So you don’t want to be stationary for too long. You have to balance the risks versus the safety aspects (and decide whether it is safer for you… er… to break the law by going slowly and veeeeery carefully through a red light).

  3. A few years ago we had a visitor from Germany. We took her “tubing” with us, floating down a local stream on inner tubes. She was amazed that there was public access to an area we did not own and that we could just float by other people’s property. Her explanation, “In Germany, everything that is not specifically permitted is strictly forbidden.”

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