New Sasol GTC cars set for thrills

The iconic Grand Prix Circuit will present a new challenge to the GTC drivers as they tackle the country’s fastest racetrack on June 16.

Suzuki’s new Swift hatch and sedan in SA

Suzuki kicks off its new model assault with an all new Swift hatchback and standalone sedan called the Dzire.

Column: Cars and democracy

2010-04-14 01:58

Lance Branquinho

The Mini did a lot more to make people interact with each other than most social institutions ever do.

Democracy. It’s an old idea, Greek in origin, and took a rather long time to find its way to the top of the organisational hierarchy in society.

In our contemporary world democracy is seen as the greatest gift Ancient Greece gave us. I’d argue for the Spartan stand at Thermopolye, which at least was turned into a decent movie, ‘300’. Then again, I am hardly the intellectual type…

You must be wondering what democracy (even tenuously) has to do with cars?

I mean, as a normative theory its implementation has been very much a Johnny-come-lately state of affairs - 2500 years ago Plato wrote about democracy, yet we’ve only had it locally for about 15 years.

Crunch the comparative numbers and you'll notice cars have been around for a little more than a century, and rampantly popular for about the last 60 years.

There would appear to be no fundamental unit of analysis for comparison between cars and their role in spread of democracy. Just keep those numbers in the back of your mind for a little while yet though and you'll start to understand how the rise of the car went hand-in-hand with the establishing of a democratic soceity.

Admittedly traffic is an unhappy state of affairs most of the time. It’s probably a worthwhile sacrifice for the notion of ultimate personal mobility.

Men or machines?

Dastardly politicians. Insufferable social scientists. Badly dressed activists. They all champion democracy and its values of egalitarian participation and accountable, transparent institutions. The odd thing about it – for me at least – has always been what makes democracy work, which is simple: cars.

Independent personal mobility flourished in exactly the same timeframe as democracy became the ‘only’ political endgame globally, during the second half of the 20th century. Coincidence? I don’t think so.

When the idea of modern democracy was refined by John Locke back in the 17th century the idea of independent motorised personal transport was still a fair way off.

At that stage the only notable transport was marine, and it became dominated by the Royal Navy. Life back then was rather rubbish too and you were lucky to live until the age of 40. It was hardly a happy time to be alive and - unsurprisingly - there were no cars to be seen.

A sign of resurgent Germany in the 1950s. The Gullwing Mercedes was much more than best supercar of its time.

A symbol of hope?

After democracy’s greatest initial threat – National Socialism caused by German aggression during the Second World War – was defeated, it was the proliferation of cars which cemented democracy, not the grandiose (and underwhelming) UN, a litany of flowery speeches or any other silly institutions.

Salvaging the German people, ravaged by war and burdened with guilt, from again pandering to the whims of some crazy orator was a raft of stunning cars.

These machines (Porsche 356, BMW 507, Mercedes-Benz Gullwing) did much to starve off the memory of World War Two and gave the idea of German ingenuity (and the country’s international image) an authentic boost.

The Berlin airlift might have supplied Germany with rations to survive the winter of 1945, yet the 300SL Gullwing gave Germans a sense of purpose and galvanised a renewed sense of non-belligerent nationalism, a decade later in 1955.

A Japanese technician studiously at work.

Turning warriors into workers

In Japan it was much the same thing.

Although we all love their oddness and brilliant technical acumen, the Japanese were rather awful people up until the end of World War Two. They treated the Koreans horrendously, whilst raping and pillaging Chinese coastal cities at will.

After near destruction and significant social intransigence in the wake of their World War Two defeat, the Marshall plan invigorated Japan’s economy, with much of its output driven by automotive exports.

The baby boomer generation and growth in private car ownership globally during the 1960s and ‘70s were ably supplied by the Japanese.

Japan today? Well, it’s one of the most peaceful nations on earth, with nearly peerless life expectancy. All thanks to the democracy of the car.

Prime Minister you know who leaving his home. Despite taxing private car owners to death, politicians love their personal cars and would not be caught dead (excuse the pun) on public transport.

Keeping the social sphere pure
I’ve always held that independent motorised personal mobility is the most important buffer against a rogue government.

Forget about media freedom, effective parliamentary opposition or unionisation. If you have a car and fuel, if your nation state collapses, at least you’ll be able to get your family out or run to the border to procure survival supplies. The busses and other public transport systems sure aren’t going to do it for you.

The most successful refugees are inevitably the ones who manage to scrounge their way onto a Land Cruiser 70 somewhere and make it out of whichever war zone they are unfortunate enough to find themselves in.

Terrible countries to live in generally have either low levels of fuel availability or private car ownership. Take Zimbabwe as an example, and pretty much all the former Soviet Union’s satellite states between 1945 and 1990.

If there is a sole reason as to why communism was so unpleasant, it’s because people could not really own a car and drive it where they wanted.

Off-roaders can take you deep into nature, unveiling all the splendour. Despite the short sighted rhetoric of environmentalists, these 4x4shelp people to enjoy a unique outdoor experience which promotes respect for the planet.

The freedom to be

Cars democratise society like nothing else.

They enable one to circumvent the inefficiencies in public transport. They’re infinitely more flexible in terms of route scheduling too. For example, how many busses run on a Friday from Gauteng to Ballito when you happen to benefit from your boss’s generosity and get to clock off at 12:00?

Furthermore, cars enable us to explore places at our own pace instead of being dictated a schedule by some bus or rail company. They enable us to tell the guest house owner (or in-laws) they’re simply intolerable and give us the option of leaving at our own behest for somewhere else, somewhere better. 

Cars enable us to surprise people, by pitching up at their homes on the other side of the country unannounced (and generally uninvited) but with generally unintended, yet happy, consequences.

They help us escape from our cities into rural South Africa on weekends to find the happy balance between urban lifestyle management (inarguable stress) and the therapeutic rural reality of starlit night skies. Simply put: they take us to the most haphazard, yet bedazzling, places.

When you stop next to the road to watch a Karoo sunset whilst savouring a biltong sandwich, the experience ballasts a very necessary counterweight to the idea of our existence being worthless.

When you are a child, the first social class distinction you identify with are cars. Who has them and who doesn't? They form a fundamental part of our social fabric.

What about the bus then?

Public transport apologists will say busses and trains aid social interaction, deconstructing class boundaries. This is an idea extrapolated from the European public transport model – operating in a welfare state set-up, which is hardly applicable in many other (poorer, geographically vast) parts of the world.

I fly a lot, and trust me, you don’t want to meet – less so interact – with most people in this world. You hardly ever sit next to somebody nice, interesting or courteous.

Obviously I’d like to see more efficient cars, which are less harmful to the environment. I’d even take the train five days a week, so-far as I know the weekend will be 48 hours of independent driving time in my own vehicle. The basic idea of independent personal mobility is sacrosanct for me, even if it becomes battery powered in future.

Cars, you see, are the true bastion of democracy. If government tries to take them away, or tax the usage of personal transport so severely as to make it untenable, you’ll see me attesting at any local militia which takes up arms to the cause.

Or perhaps in future, we’ll all just have to become outlaw bikers. O right, somebody’s done that already…


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