They are the angels of gridlock, invested with the power to get you through really, really, bad traffic. Often surrounded by hundred of cars, with drivers at their wits end, they maintain their cool so the daily anaconda that is Johannesburg’s traffic slinks that little bit more smoothly.
One such man is 39-year-old David Phale, one of the 113 Outsurance Traffic FreeFlow pointsmen who operate in Johannesburg. He has been on the job for over three years.
“I think the toughest aspect of our job is having to deal with different attitudes of people and for you to adjust to those attitudes,” he says.
“If you get one person swearing at you, you get 10 people appreciating what you do, so for you, it really is whatever that person says. When you come back to your office, on your break, already it’s been rubbed off. You are a happy person waiting for another challenge.”
Being a pointsman requires mental toughness.
“If something scratches you, you don’t come back quickly. You won’t manage to work.”
“At the end of the day, it makes you happy to see that traffic flowing. That’s what we are all about, traffic free flow. Once it flows it means I’ve done my part,” he says.
To become a pointsman, you need to have a matric, communicate effectively, undergo the two-month theory and practical training regime, and most importantly, from David’s perspective, be a team player.
“Not a short tempered person… You don’t need to give back what they give you on the road.”
Taxi drivers on Johannesburg’s roads have forged a reputation for being impatient. For David, they present a unique riddle which must be dealt with and solved.
“Very, very difficult to work with. They [taxis] really need a person who understands, not a person who is biased. At the end of the day it is about, ‘What powers do you have on the road?'”
It comes down to control. Even if a pointsman wants a taxi to stop, there is a possibility it might not.
“Make sure at least that no accident happens at an intersection. Just allow the person to pass through then, so that everybody can go through and get to work in peace,” he says.
David is part of the 33-strong mobile pointsmen team. He was promoted from the static team, who work at the same intersections daily, rotating with Johannesburg metro police. The mobile pointsmen are deployed to where they are needed most.
When pointsmen arrive at an intersection and are seen fiddling on their phones, they are not slacking off. Instead, they all use a mobile app to let head office know they have arrived and are on the job.
The mobile team work in two four-hour shifts, which are from 06:00 to 10:00, and 14:00 to 18:00. While on the job, David has had drivers swear at him, but he says it does not happen that often.
The pointsmen, their managers, and metro police meet twice a month to exchange information. Once a month, Traffic FreeFlow compiles a report for the metro’s own records, which can be used within the appropriate departments in the municipality.
Power cuts are the joker in the pack of daily South African life. While it has increased the pointsmen’s workload, David says the public appear to appreciate their work that little bit more.
“They’re starting to realise ‘these people, we really need them’. It inconveniences them. It happens out of the blue. You are travelling, then you get a blackout. We feel like we are being appreciated more than before because of the part we are playing.
“It makes you become strong, because you wake up every day to do one thing, you start to get tired. You get people appreciating what you are doing, your attitude changes, you become a positive person daily because somebody is going to say ‘Thank you’.”