Madness on the Highway: The Story of a Cape Town Road Riot

Every now and then, one comes face-to-face with a country’s real issues.

Paul Steyn
Paul gets a kick out of contributing to Surge. He's also a profiled contributor to Paul

WE WERE ON the N2 somewhere between Langa and Khayelitsha townships when black smoke covering the road brought us to a sudden stop. Beyond the car I could see a number of men brandishing canisters filled with liquid and spreading it all over the tar.

“What the hell is going on?” I wondered aloud.

“I don’t know – looks like a protest of some kind,” answered my friend Clyde with a mixture of curious excitement and nervousness.

It was difficult to see through the haze but I caught site of a number of burning tires on the road. One of the protestors began to sprint up the middle of the highway like a mad person, yelling and pouring what I presume was petrol on the road as he went.

I began to get nervous. “These guys aren’t joking around!”

We were now face-to-face with the mob and I could clearly see what was going on. The men had blocked the entire highway, burning material and causing as much havoc as they could in an effort to completely halt oncoming traffic. And Halt it they did.

I looked behind us and the entire highway was backed up with cars.

A brave driver bedside us tried to drive around the mob. But the man with a canister of petrol started frantically throwing splashes of fuel in the way.

“These guys are going to blow up someone’s car if they get the chance,” Clyde warned. “I think we need to get out of here fast.”


I looked around and some of the vehicles had begun to reverse.

“Jesus, cars are reversing up the highway,” I shouted.

I turned the car around and could see the fire and smoke growing in my mirror as we made off up the highway like lost fugitives. All rules of the road seemed to be forgotten and the traffic began to steadily move in the opposite direction. Rain clouds loomed in the distance and I felt a sort of apocalyptic air to all the chaos.

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“We need to find an off-ramp,” Clyde said, as I navigated round confused-looking drivers.

Eventually I muscled my way through what was now a substantial traffic jam and peeled off the highway and into the nearby township. It took us at least 20 minutes of navigating through the chaos of Sunday afternoon Langa before we managed to find our way back onto the N2, ahead of the highway mob.

What caused this mad eruption of lawlessness? The short of it is that locals are unhappy with the government’s failure to provide proper sanitation infrastructure. And you can find out more here. 

Warranted or not, situations like this remind me of the effect a small mob of pissed off citizens can have a large number of regular people going about their day.

What happens when this crowd grows, in search of more substantial chaos? One only has to take a short trip through Langa and Khayelitsha, observing the people and living conditions along the way, to see the looming potential of this.

Paul Steyn
Paul gets a kick out of contributing to Surge. He's also a profiled contributor to Paul