Conference of incompetence?

Conference of incompetence?

For all that has been said at this year’s Southern African Bus Operators Association (Saboa) conference, will we ever see any real action?

For many years now, the annual Saboa conference has followed a familiar pattern – some senior government official has opened the show, followed by an industry overview by Prof Jackie Walters. The conference then breaks up into sessions dealing with the latest in brake fluid, and whether the licence disc should be placed in the top or bottom left of the windscreen.

The 2014 conference programme included an item that has become standard in the bus industry; a paper called “issues underlying the slow progress with the implementation of public transport policy”. This theme has been dragged through many conferences, locally and overseas, and was repeated at the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee in July last year. Business Day, of August 1, 2013, quoted Prof Walters as saying that most companies “were in serious financial difficulties due to externalities beyond their control”.

At the Saboa conference, Prof Walters, again, lamented the lack of support that the state extended to bus operators. No expansion of the commuter bus system has been allowed, despite significant urbanisation.

Enter stage left; Ismail Vadi, MEC for transport in Gauteng. He criticised the industry for adopting an “insular approach that will not help the country … if you are simply asking for more money based on the old model, you are sleeping. The industry needs to begin to look ahead and to reconceptualise” (whatever that may mean).

Enter stage right; Jack van der Merwe, another long-server in the transport industry, now boss of the Gautrain Management Agency. His contribution was also to admonish the bus industry – “it is time the industry demonstrates its part in the holistic plan for South Africa”.

There is no question about it – Saboa needs a wake-up call … However, Vadi and Van der Merwe are not in any position to criticise the bus industry.

Vadi’s department, which is responsible for contracts involving thousands of buses in Gauteng, has failed to give any leadership in the integration of services in the province. His department has, admittedly, been starving bus operators of funds, while politely ignoring overspending by municipalities on questionable schemes such as bus rapid transit (BRT). It has also turned a blind eye to the underperforming Gautrain feeder buses.

Van der Merwe was chairman of the “25-year transport plan” produced last year. I’ve previously pointed out that 164 bus routes were listed in the plan, but that no details were provided as to their origins and destinations. This doesn’t make it a “plan”! The Gautrain itself has been touted for years as part of some non-existent “holistic plan”. In reality it remains a stand-alone project, draining the province’s finances to the tune of R900 million during the past year.

Van der Merwe should have explained why Gautrain’s buses fail to operate on Saturdays and Sundays, why they cannot serve the airport after 20:30 at night, and why they duplicate Johannesburg’s BRT services in the central area.  

The various levels of government need to get their act together. The childish turf wars – between the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa), the municipal bus operators, BRT schemes, the contracted bus operators, the provincial Department of Transport (DoT) and the national DoT – need to end. Oh, I forgot the Gautrain Management Agency, which may as well be shut down and incorporated into Prasa for all the value it is adding.

The academic sphere is also doing the community no favours by making excuses for the poor performance of public transport. Contributions by universities, researchers and other academic hangers-on – having now discovered a new buzzword; “sustainability” – are disappointing.

Lastly, bad public transport and overspending on cars is driving the country into poverty. While this continues, underpinned by fossilised thinking, we stand no chance. Do the Auditor-General and the Treasury have anything to say about it?

Vadi’s department will host a “collaborative meeting” with bus operators next month. “Within 24 months, changes needed to take effect”. Let’s see who attends, what is discussed and what suggestions flow from this meeting.


Vaughan Mostert is a senior lecturer in the Department of Transport and Supply Chain Management at the University of Johannesburg. He developed a love for public transport early in life, which led to a lifelong academic interest in the subject. Through Hopping Off, Mostert leaves readers with some parting food for thought as he continues his push for change in the local public transport industry.

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