Are We Moving Yet?

February 28, 2010 • Politics and Economy • Views: 1273

by Adele Rossouw:

“If we hear there’s a taxi strike, we know that there will be no transport to get to work. People who are desperate start walking, you don’t dare take the bus,” Aida Moyo explained. “If taxi drivers see you getting into buses they will shoot you, or they will burn the vehicle.” Moyo is a native Zimbabwean who, like so many others, came to Johannesburg in search of work. “These taxi strikes affect everybody. You find everybody is in fear.”

Moyo is just one of thousands of members of the South African workforce who were paralyzed by a series of taxi driver strikes throughout 2009. The protestors expressed outrage over the government’s implementation of a new mass transit system. Modeled on the transport networks of South American cities, the Bus Rapid Transit System (BRT) was designed to upgrade Johannesburg’s public transport in preparation for the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Taxi drivers, who have long been the key providers of public transport in the city, feared they would lose their customers to the government-subsidized BRT buses.

As taxi drivers in Johannesburg strike, their vehicles sit idle in the streets. (Courtesy Pierre Rossouw)

The BRT system, which was renamed Rea Vaya (“we are moving” in the Sotho language) by the Department of Transport, was launched in August 2009. Before then, more than 70 percent of Johannesburg’s public transport users depended on the city’s chaotic mass of minibus taxis. The limited number of buses and trains could do little to compete with the taxis’ vast, unregulated network of vehicles, which are a fast and cheap means of transport. Such advantages, however, come at a price. Taxis are notorious for reckless speeding, poor vehicle maintenance, and – after the government’s implementation of the first phase of Rea Vaya – violent repression of competitors.

The BRT system’s main line runs through central Johannesburg from Soweto Township to the Ellis Park Stadium, a route once dominated by taxis. Protests by taxi drivers started in March 2009 and brought movement in the city to a standstill. The Ministry of Transport is nevertheless determined to implement Rea Vaya. “This project will continue to develop, both before and after the World Cup,” stated Ibrahim Seedat, the ministry’s director of public transport policies.

In recognition of the service that the taxi industry has been providing, the ministry committed to employing taxi drivers who would lose clients to the BRT system. Taxi owners will become shareholders in companies which will eventually run Rea Vaya on behalf of the city. “The government has stated repeatedly that there will be no loss of legitimate jobs or profits,” said Seedat.

Such promises have induced members of the taxi industry to enter into negotiations with the City of Johannesburg. By December 14, 2009, the two largest taxi organizations involved in the negotiations, the Greater Johannesburg Regional Taxi Council and the Top Six Taxi Association, had signed a memorandum of understanding with the city. The agreement did not commit taxi operators to any part of the implementation of Rea Vaya. “How will taxi operators be compensated? What will their shareholding in the BRT companies be? These are matters which we are discussing at the moment,” stated Frans Mashishi, secretary general of the Gauteng Taxi Council. “I can’t say with certainty that these people will get jobs. There are still some who are against the implementation of BRT.”

The first phase of Rea Vaya replaced 575 taxis with 143 BRT buses, but this number represents only a small proportion of the 25,000 taxis in the city. An approved fleet of drivers has been hired to transport soccer fans for the duration of the World Cup, but only the bus route from Soweto to Ellis Park will be operational. If Rea Vaya is to develop into a superior alternative to Johannesburg’s chaotic taxi network, it will have to incorporate the labor and territory currently controlled by taxis. The Ministry of Transport hopes that peaceful negotiations with the taxi industry will continue, but no agreement has yet been reached. While the power struggle continues, members of the public are impatient for an improved means of public transport. “If only these problems with the taxis could simply disappear!” lamented Moyo. “Then everybody could travel to work. Everybody would be safer.”

Adèle Rossouw ’13 is in Trumbull College. Contact her at adele.rossouw@yale.edu.

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