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Tragic death spotlights Joburg’s crumbling roads



The senseless death of a Johannesburg doctor who was fatally knocked over by a truck while trying to warn motorists of a pothole last week has shone a light on the city’s crumbling infrastructure which threatens lives daily.

What should have been a day of celebration on Yom Ha’atzmaut, last Wednesday, 26 April, turned into a tragedy for Dr Simmy Waner, 71, a pathologist specialising in infectious diseases.

Waner fetched his two daughters from King David High School Linksfield (KDHL) around lunchtime, intending to treat them to freezochinos to mark the celebration of Israel’s 75th day of independence – a day he loved.

He hit a pothole on the corner of James Street and Kent Avenue, Sandringham, jolting them out of their cheerfulness. He parked his car, and told his girls to wait there for him while he found a way to mark the gaping hole which had been left unmarked and exposed.

He approached contractors across the road working on a cellphone tower, and asked them for one of their orange cones to place in the road to warn other motorists. While he was placing the cone in the road, a brick-carrier truck fatally struck him in front of his children. He died on the scene.

Mourners showed stunned shock and dismay at his funeral last week.

Rabbi Salzer of Adass Yeshurun said Waner had “cared for everybody”.

“This was the hallmark of his life until the very end, when the last thing he did was an act of caring,” he told mourners.

Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein said, “The world has lost an Avraham in the midst of our community,” pointing out that Waner was driven to help those in need.

Describing Waner, he said, “Some people are so good, they don’t just respond to need, they seek it out because they want to do good in the world. They are unfulfilled unless they are helping and giving to people.”

“We are still in shock, we cannot believe this is real,” said his heartbroken son, Yitzhak, 18 who obtained 10 distinctions last year at KDHL, and was one of the country’s top achievers.

“There’s some comfort knowing that he passed away on Yom Ha’atzmaut, a day he always cherished because of his love for Israel, and also knowing that he died while performing an act of kindness, which was the way he lived his life.”

Waner’s death has focused attention on the country’s deteriorating roads and proliferation of potholes.

Daniel Schay, the Democratic Alliance city councillor for the area, said the hazard had been brought to Joburg Water officials’ attention “multiple times”, and that it and the Johannesburg Roads Agency (JRA) “played a role” in this tragedy.

He said that for years, the JRA and Johannesburg Water had failed to reinstate excavated roadways timeously, endangering the lives of residents.

“This particular pothole had formed following repair work by Johannesburg Water. The excavation had been filled with sand, but not yet tarred, and the sand had eroded in some way,” he said.

He said he was “demanding a full investigation by Joburg Water” into the circumstances around the tragedy, and the “partial reinstatement that contributed to it”.

Irate residents throughout the country, frustrated at the lack of service delivery, have been seen on social media spray-painting “ANC” around potholes to alert drivers to the danger.

Although the intention of road marking is to put pressure on municipalities to fix road surfaces, it’s against the city’s bylaws, and could result in prosecution.

Two years ago, leading insurance companies Dialdirect Insurance and Discovery Insure partnered with the JRA and City of Johannesburg to form the Pothole Patrol.

According to the chief executive of Discovery Insure, Anton Ossip, the Pothole Patrol has filled 150 000 crevasses to date, and employs 40 people split into eight teams who work daily.

He said Johannesburg had an enormous road network and it wasn’t possible to know exactly how many there still were, “but it’s safe to say the problem in Johannesburg and in other cities and towns is large”.

There are some moves to improve the situation, however a great deal needs to be done, say experts.

And for Waner, it’s definitely too late.

“When everyone else drove past, Simmy got out of his car to make sure other motorists were warned of the dangerous pothole. It was typical of him to think of other people’s safety,” said his close friend, Marilyn Gutkin.

A witness to the accident, Riana Roos, was across the road with workers installing the cellular telephone tower. “My guys told me that at least three other vehicles hit that pothole in 15 minutes before him. That poor man is a hero, an angel, who wanted to prevent an accident. It’s an absolute tragedy,” she said.

Waner was born and raised in Springs, and attended Springs Boys High School, matriculating at Damelin College. After school, he studied medicine and thereafter became a pathologist with an interest in travel medicine. He married his wife, Susan, a maths teacher, when he was 52, and he cared for his late mother with a quiet devotion.

In a moving letter to the family, Pinchas Goldberg wrote, “When I worked for the Johannesburg kashrus department, I had to travel substantially and frequently into Africa. Dr Simmy would advise me on when to take anti-malarials, when to have a flu shot, which water I could drink, how to clean the water if needed, and many other travel-related medical questions. Dr Simmy never took money for his time and the vaccines he arranged for me. He told me that because I enabled him to learn with Yitzhak, and the other work I did for the community, he felt so indebted to me, he wanted to help me. People like this are few and far between.”

One of his closest friends, Steven Katzew, said, “His ability to heal and care for people was profound. I felt the full benefit of this throughout our enduring friendship.”

Tributes continue to pour in for the man who mentored fellow doctors, lectured and inspired students, and above all saved the lives of ordinary South Africans.

“These stories have been a source of comfort which we’ll hold on to,” said Yitzhak, who intends to study engineering in Israel later this year.”

Waner is survived by his wife Susan; children Yitzhak, 18; Ashira, 16; and Yaira, 14; and his two brothers, Trevor and Harold.

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