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Blue-light buffoons: When frustrated drivers fight back

Google “blue light VIP” and click the “news” tab.

Four stories top the list:

1. The DA’s Dianne Kohler Barnard’s parliamentary question regarding Malema’s alleged use of a VIP blue-light convoy;

2. The trial of VIP protection officer Hlanganani Nxumalo, accused of causing an accident by shooting a gun at a motorist;

3. Testimony by VIP Protection trainer Martin Khanyile that official bodyguards are entitled to break road rules; and

4. Police investigating the deaths of four men run over by a convoy of speeding VIP vehicles.

Three are from South Africa. The last occurred in Russia. All involve VIP vehicles with flashing blue lights ignoring road rules and causing death and injury to ordinary citizens.

Curiously, Russia and South Africa are two of the world’s biggest offenders when it comes to the deadly abuse of “blue-light” privileges by powerful VIPs from politics and business. Both are “new” countries, barely 20 years old. They are also two of the world’s most unequal societies.

I may be obsessed with making up specious parallels between South Africa and Russia, but it can’t just be a coincidence.

What is it about countries transitioning from authoritarian regimes that inspires such fantastic status anxiety among their new and aspiring elites?

Back in early 90s Russia, you had about as much chance of making it across the street alive as a Stalin-era political prisoner had making it out of the Gulag.

In those free-wheeling, dog-eat-dog (and sometimes man-who-had-not-been-paid-in-months-eat-dog) early years of post-communism, a small and ruthless group of politically connected individuals grabbed most of the country’s wealth. If few people had cars in the USSR, even fewer could afford them in a new Russia teetering on the edge of total socio-economic collapse.

So those rich, powerful or criminal enough to do so made sure everyone knew it. Ploughing their armoured black Mercedes and Range Rovers through red lights and pedestrian crossings, they had no fears of knocking down a hungry pedestrian or two. After all, no car=no money=nobody. It was motor-Darwinism.

But as the peasants gradually started to get their hands on rickety second hand Nivas and condemned Volkswagens from Western scrapyards, VIPs grew anxious. Getting around the newly forming traffic jams was easy enough — that’s what pavements are for!

The real threat, however, was existential: expressing your inherent superiority over the plebes when the mere fact of having a car, no matter how outrageously expensive, was no longer enough.

Enter the magical flashing blue light. Forget Steve Jobs — that’s what really changed the world.

You needed to either be a government minister or have an official permit to get one, and the bribes and connections required were steep, putting it, and you, definitively out of the rabble’s reach.

By the end of the decade, more luxury car drivers had flashing blue lights than valid licences. They came to be known as migalki, or flashers.

South Africa appears to be little different. From road rage to airport angst, the message is the same: power and money don’t just buy you a better life, but also the right to live by different rules.

What’s South Africa and Russia’s problem?

Maybe it’s the grotesque inequality and missing middle class in either society, which gives people a very stark choice: either stay on top — by any means necessary — or end up at the very bottom. Better be the guy with blue lights flashing and guns blazing than the guy crashing into a bakkie.

Maybe it was caused by the decoupling of wealth from status under the apartheid and communist regimes.

An exclusive group was in charge — whether the Broederbond or Central Committee — who lived by their own rules while dehumanising their subjects; if you weren’t one of them already, you could never be let in, no matter how much money you had or what your achievements, particularly if you were black in South Africa. As some of the formerly poor and oppressed have managed to claw their way to the top, perhaps the blue lights embody the explosive release of all their intense feelings of insecurity and resentment, along with the ingrained sense that only exclusive status, above money and power alone, can prove success.

Maybe it’s the lack of shared social values due to a moral vacuum cause by the dismantling of old value systems before new ones could fill their place.

Or maybe some people are just power-hungry, egomaniacal, sociopathic jerks.

Whatever its cause, the belief that VIPs are above the law can have no place in a democracy, which depends on the notion of equal citizenship.

Not surprisingly, the most stable and successful societies are ones in which powerful political and economic figures act like normal people. Scandinavian prime ministers walk to the office. In Britain, senior politicians ride their bikes to work, or take public transport.

But it is possible to fight back against the blue-light mafia.

With the aid of YouTube and social networking, ordinary Russians have started documenting and shaming VIP traffic abuses.

Wearing big blue buckets over their heads, vigilante activists known as the Blue Buckets conduct audacious and surrealistic stunts: one such protestor even jumped on the roof of an unmarked black secret service vehicle (before being arrested and beaten up).

In solidarity, thousands of fed-up motorists stuck blue buckets on the roofs of their cars and refused to yield to speeding migalki. Even Russia’s all-powerful leader Vladimir Putin has started to notice, moving to curb the blue-light practice among officials and cracking down on unauthorised flashers.

The time has come for South Africans to also don their blue buckets and not give up until VIPs take off their tin-foil hats and finally embrace democracy.

Author

  • Journalist Vadim Nikitin claims to be working on a book about nostalgia. He blames his poor judgement and unhealthy obsession with the past on having been born perilously close to the Soviet Union's largest nuclear submarine base.

46 Comments

  1. wouter wouter 13 October 2011

    Very well written and well thought out article. I really enjoyed the read, thanks author.

  2. nzs nzs 13 October 2011

    In your twaddle, you “forgot” to mention two other self-important clowns who have infamously been shuttled in blue-light convoys, much to the chagrin of motorists:

    1. Helen Zille who was shuttled from the CBD of Cape Town for some self-important meeting at the V&A Waterfront. Regrettably, you have conveniently forgotten this incident.

    2. Dan Plato (then mayor of Cape Town) who was shuttled along the N1 highway, for what was described as an emergency meeting. But hey, again, this had to be forgotten by you.

    Both these two cases took place way after the case you listed in Number 2. Surely, this selectivity in recall could not in any way be attributed to memory fading.

  3. kleinfrans kleinfrans 13 October 2011

    wow nzs, you are really good at missing the point.

  4. Vadim Nikitin Vadim Nikitin Post author | 13 October 2011

    nzs: Thanks for reading! But there’s no need to get partisan – nowhere did I say that the blue lights were an exclusively ANC phenomenon or that the DA was any better. I led off with the episodes I did because they were literally the top 4 results when googling “blue light VIP”, as they’ve been in the news this week. Try it: no mention of Zille or Plato. In fact, on your recommendation, I’ve just now googled “Zille blue light” and all I found was reference to her 2010 plan to ban blue light convoys in the Cape (http://www.iol.co.za/news/politics/zille-to-ban-blue-lights-1.473987). But you may well be right. The point I was making, though, was about a broader social phenomenon; not everything is about simple-minded political point scoring!

  5. JB JB 13 October 2011

    Argh nzs!

    That was so embarrasing.

    Sometimes we wish we rather didn’t comment, eh?

    Time for a name change again…

  6. Al Al 13 October 2011

    Keep the stories coming in.I love them

  7. Robard Robard 13 October 2011

    Not to rain on your parade, but you obviously swallowed Soviet propaganda hook, line and sinker regarding our “authoritarian” past. South Africa was, in fact, a functioning democracy, albeit limited to whites and coloureds and Indians only. Our political culture was also much freer than in the USSR: you were allowed to freely advocate your political beliefs, except for sedition. (We are arguably less free in this regard today. It is hard to imagine an academic today publicly agitating for Afrikaner self-determination in the same way many academics back then were openly agitating for majority rule.)

  8. Dave Harris Dave Harris 13 October 2011

    First it was outlandish comparisons of black politicians to Nazis, now its equating our black government with the old Communist/KGB order. Hey, at least we have freedom of expression here in SA. So as much as you hate your mother Russia, there is no need to resurrect the old ROOI GEVAAR tactics. Stop living in the land of paranoia where all the “blue-light buffoons” are out to “get you”. Try to improve your driving instead LOL

  9. Vadim Nikitin Vadim Nikitin Post author | 13 October 2011

    Hey Robard – thanks for your, er, insight! As a Soviet stooge, one of the qualities I prize most highly in people is fluency in doublespeak (ie. “democracy = minority rule”) and the the ability to effortlessly and even subconsciously re-write history. However, just to give your mind a bit of a helping hand in finding “an academic today publicly agitating for Afrikaner self-determination”: meet Carel Boschoff. After all, Mandela and Zuma have. (http://tiny.cc/qkqv6 and http://tiny.cc/twan9)
    Although, to be fair, you are quite right: Boschoff is not treated in quite the same way as were his apartheid-era black pro-majority-rule counterparts (such as, I don’t know, Steve Biko), who, as a result of blatant positive discrimination, were honoured with infinitely more visits from the offices of state security. Talk about preferential treatment!

  10. Geoff Smart Geoff Smart 13 October 2011

    I find it quite amazing that people can read the same article and come to such different conclusions. So much comes down to political colour of their reading glasses, be it pink, green, blue, red, black or whatever. I long for the day when we can all read with clear glasses, which are at the same time rainbow glasses, and only then bring our politics into the debate.

  11. Jen Jen 13 October 2011

    @Robard
    A functioning democracy limited to whites coloured and Indians? That is a contradiction in terms. How old are you? I’m old enough to remember it all. Indians and coloured never had any status btw. The tricameral parliament was a desperate sham(bles). South Afirca was a brutally efficient police state that looked after white afrikaners first and formost. As an English speaking South African I was also dsicriminated against, but at least I had a vote. How soon we forge!.

  12. Günter Günter 13 October 2011

    Vadim you are an well educated legend, seldom enjoyed an blogg as much as this one, difficult for any racial biased reader to attack what you have to say.
    I am Austrian and would just like to give a small input.
    While i was still living in vienna it was a common site to see some of our ministers on the subway or tramway services. Alone…… no security….. and they did not look scared. What is it with New leaders that they need to show of their “power” in such a poor way.

  13. MLH MLH 13 October 2011

    Your comments are as much fun as your blog!

  14. Judith Judith 13 October 2011

    Vadim – thank you for a truly wonderful, anarchic article! Just given me some great ideas as well as a great laugh!

  15. Lenny Appadoo Lenny Appadoo 13 October 2011

    Excellent piece Vadim, although I think our politicians are the ones who should be wearing the buckets over their heads.

    One other thing. D Harris is correct in saying that our politicians cannot be compared to the Communist/KGB order. You see, they had real cohones and fomented real terror in the world at one time. Our politicians are spineless creatures, who hide behind blue lights, heavily armed security guards, denial, the race card, blatant lies, and proposed laws to silence the public.

    Yes, our politicians just want to get fat….of the hard-earned money of others.

  16. ian ian 14 October 2011

    harris – where does ‘hate your mother russia’ come from? you are of course aware that people can point out the issues of their country without hating it…
    your point on ‘rooi gevaar’ i assume is just so you could use that term and of course CAPS..unless of course you completely misread the article (no, surely not you..)

    Nice article Vadim, i particularly like the line: What is it about countries transitioning from authoritarian regimes that inspires such fantastic status anxiety among their new and aspiring elites?

    perhaps its the concept of easy come easy go…or could just be that people generally don’t know who they are, or give a shit.

  17. Al Al 14 October 2011

    Why, pray tell, Dave Harris is the “movement” such a sacred cow to you? I’d say one Julius Malema’s utterances and the blind eye his league’s parent body turned to them were clear warning bells that fascism could once again be the future. No one’s actions are beyond criticism or comparison with those of others, especially when we had one ANC yesterday and a very different one today.

  18. CryThe Beloved CryThe Beloved 14 October 2011

    You said it: Some people are just power-hungry, egomaniacal, sociopathic jerks – who would – AND DID! – rob poor workers of their pensions – as well as drive over them in the streets.

  19. amazd amazd 14 October 2011

    I don’t even know where to begin with some of your commentators, Vadim. So I won’t but will only say ngiyabonga for raising the issue – one which also holds great public health significance. I imagine if you compared road traffic policies, car accidents and pedestrian injuries between both, you might also find unsurprising similarities. So what kind of message and modeling are leaders also sending its people on that front?

  20. Ratel Ratel 14 October 2011

    I have personally experienced these praetorian thugs on numerous occasions. Once they tried to run me off my motorcycle because I didn’t get out of the way fast enough, another they commandeered the services of local traffic police to apprehend me because I dared to give them the middle finger.

    it’s time for civil disobedience.

  21. Paleface Paleface 14 October 2011

    This never happened when PW Botha was around. Travelling in a security convoy – No Way….he just commandeered a military helicopter !!!

  22. Cracker Cracker 14 October 2011

    Where do I get my Blue Bucket from. What an excellent way to protest. Like taking a leaf out of Ghandi’s book.

  23. Robard Robard 14 October 2011

    @Jen – yes, the tricameral parliament was a shambles, but so is the current one. There was no legal discrimination against English people. As late as the 1980’s eighty percent of the JSE market capitalization was still in English hands. English/Afrikaans discrimination was a mutual antipathy where the English held the whip hand right until the end. It was English resistance – with its international connections and ramifications – that eventually led to the Afrikaner’s downfall, more than anything else.

  24. chantelle chantelle 14 October 2011

    Paleface, I think you missed the point. The conversation is not about the use of a security convoy. It’s about the bully tactics of these people thinking they’re above the law.

  25. ian shaw ian shaw 14 October 2011

    eI second Gunter. I also lived in Vienna once and ran into the mayor of Vienna on the street. I am not sure though, that this is still true there.

  26. nguni nguni 14 October 2011

    The connection between the Russia and present SA ‘nomenklatura’ is real, where do you think Zuma and Co. learnt their handiwork? In the the USSR and it’s satellite East Bloc states the flashing blue light convoy was the ultimate status symbol, and was used a lot. Pre-1994 this was almost unknown in SA. Maybe Botha and co. did use military helicopters, but they did not show off their power arrogantly on the roads.

  27. nguni nguni 14 October 2011

    @ günter
    Like ian shaw I too lived in Vienna, for a long time actually. But my memories of the place are decidedly different. Sure you could see the occasional politician walking around in the city, but on the highways they also learned their behavior from the soviets, who occupied the country for many years.. Google ‘blaulicht-affäre’, the scandals continue to this day.

  28. Dave Harris Dave Harris 15 October 2011

    @Lenny Ian and Al
    Vadim reveals his apartheid mindset when he draws parallels between Russia and SA. A similar tactic called ROOI GEVAAR was effectively used by the apartheid government to prolong apartheid for many years by stirring up Cold War paranoia.

    Similarly many TL bloggers, have gone a step further by comparing the ANC to Nazis in underhanded ways to play the “white genocide” card.

    Vadim employs these tactics repeatedly to create the illusion that the ANC are a lawless bunch of thugs like the Russian mafia. This is why so may DA supporters love him. LOL

  29. Cyberdog Cyberdog 15 October 2011

    @Lenny Ian and Al: Don’t feed the troll…

    It seems, looking at all our neighbors, the worse the state of a country, the more protection the politicians require… When the blue lights gets replaced with the military, then the fun only really begins …Go Figure…

  30. Ian Ian 15 October 2011

    Ah Dave, a Russian with an apartheid mindset……think about that one will ya….

  31. Oldfox Oldfox 15 October 2011

    I’m not a DA supporter, but I like Vadim’s blogs and comments very much. He has noted many, but not all parallels between Russia and SA. Here are two more: both SA and Russia have some of the world’s best ultra marathon runners, and both Russia and SA have more than their fair share of nasty serial killers who have killed during the past two decades.

  32. Sakharov Sakharov 15 October 2011

    So the brain-dead apartheid relic ‘Dave Harris’ can’t refute the truth of your statements , and resorts to what he knows best – insults, either personal (improve your driving) or based on race or nationality (hate your mother Russia). Always assuming that other are too polite and decent to respond in kind. What a complete and utter palooka!

  33. Brent Brent 15 October 2011

    Dave Harris reminds me of the Apartheid media apologists, no matter what was written/discussed just change the subject agressively, gets everyone off what the Govt of the day was mucking up.

    Brent

  34. blulightfinger blulightfinger 16 October 2011

    Ag man I love the way they try squeeze through traffic that is backed up and not moving, somehow the bluelighters expect you to move your multi-ton car in a way that is physically impossible out of the blessed and most urgent and hallowed blue-lighted path.

    Times like these I put on an African attitude, sit and wait patiently like I am at home affairs, like I have all day, a finger defiantly waving in my mind, and a car that whoops can’t move out the way, not much different than driving in a way that won’t allow a taxi to chip or skip in from the emergancy lane :-)

  35. Justin Justin 16 October 2011

    Entertaining article! I believe that this need to show one’s self importance, like conspicious consumption, is due to lack of self esteem. If one has bodyguards, rides in an armour plated limo accompanied by a blue light convoy, stays at ostentatiously expensive hotels, then one is a VIP. What has this VIP done to deserve this special treatment at the tax payers expense? Probably very little and he/she knows it, otherwise why be so afraid?

  36. Al Al 16 October 2011

    No, Dave Harris, your reply convinces me more than ever of my statement – that, to you, the ANC is a scared cow and above criticism simply because it’s the ANC. No other reason.

  37. Oscar Oscar 16 October 2011

    ‘ the illusion that the ANC are a lawless bunch of thugs like the Russian mafia.’

    This is an illusion? From where I am sitting, this is the truth.

  38. Paddy Paddy 17 October 2011

    Animal Farm – ANC cadres are more equal than others.

  39. EA Blair EA Blair 17 October 2011

    I have been a passenger in a blue light convey (two police cars and a Range Rover). Guess where we were going…the car wash. The honest truth.

  40. goolam.dawood goolam.dawood 18 October 2011

    @NZS – No doubt Zille and Plato wouldn’t make it to the top of the search. Which probably says more about why the other incidents are at the top of the google search than anything else. Which is – Self-fulfilling truth of a South Africas virulently anti-ANC upper-middle class.

    Great article. Lets hope South Africa doesn’t start killing with as much gusto, or push our neighbours towards authoritarianism as much the Russian military does.

  41. Bobinator Bobinator 18 October 2011

    Dave Harris – LOL

    Soooo… which part of running people off the road or shooting at them is not lawless?
    I’m pretty sure that at least 90% of the driving population have personally witnessed these blue-light convoys driving in excess of the speed limit (read: recklessly read:lawlessly). I’ve seen them a number of times.

    I don’t care who’s driving, or who’s being escorted. These people are both an obvious physical danger to normal citizens, and a social danger in unashamedly announcing that some people are more equal than others.

  42. IMPEDIMENTA IMPEDIMENTA 18 October 2011

    I enjoy the insight in to Russian transition and life.

    I don’t see the Rooi Gevar implication that David notes? Some small similarities perhaps, but no great overlaps. Two different transitional states with governance issues.

    Exposing poor governance is a good way to publicise it and push for better performance.

  43. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 19 October 2011

    The “Rooi Gevaar” was the banning of religion and God in Soviet Russia. Anyone practicing any religion, usually Christianity, was sent for re-education, or to Siberia, or declared mentally ill and incarcerated in a mental home.

    Like “Die Roomse Gevaar” was the Roman Catholic Church, the Inquisition, persecution of Jews and Protestant Christians and scientists, and forced conversions.

    And the “Swart Gevaar” was having their culture overwhelmed by a black majority with a totally different culture.

  44. silver silver 20 October 2011

    I dont mind that you are drawing parrallels between us & Russia at all, thanx for the informative piece.

  45. goolam.dawood goolam.dawood 27 October 2011

    Now that I think about it … Googles search engine is super smart. I think it alters results depending on the location you’re searching from.

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