Of tweets, transport and teachers

Of tweets, transport and teachers

I need to thank Helen Zille for stirring up a beerhall brawl with her tweet about colonialism

Nearly four years ago, the first column in this series was devoted to the insipid role of the academic world in helping to sort out public transport problems. Not much has changed since then. As recently as March, Hopping Off questioned the inane comments from a local think tank which suggested that people should be given transport vouchers to use on any service of their choice.

I therefore owe a big thank you to Zille for her tweet, and the colonial benefits she listed therein: such as piped water, an independent judiciary and transport infrastructure. I’m glad she mentioned transport because I need an excuse to continue writing about the way we continually mismanage it.

Another vote of thanks goes to the queue of people who stood in line to take pot-shots at her. One of them was Professor David Everatt, head of the Department of Governance at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits). In The Star of March 30, he writes:

The country’s transport infrastructure was a great colonial inheritance – it ensured that white South Africans had buses and trains and tarred roads and traffic lights – and black South Africans had none.

Spot on there, Prof. This was exactly the point I made in February in my reply to Andrew Marsay.

Entrepreneurial black South Africans created the minibus-taxi industry because blacks (wanted to go) anywhere – while the authorities felt they only needed to go to work, and then back home.

Correct again, although South Africa urgently needs to sort out the unintended consequences of a deregulated industry.

However, instead of leaving it there and quitting while ahead, Prof Everatt then had a “Zille moment” of his own:

South Africa’s post-colonial transport infrastructure created linkages between spatially and racially separated communities, introduced sustainable mass transit systems, the Gautrain, and the rest.

This column has regularly criticised the academic world, and especially civil engineers and accountants, for their less-than-stellar contribution to fixing public transport. Must we now add sociologists to the list?

The truth is that, since coming to power, the ANC government has done very little to fix public transport. As for the Gautrain, this column has become boringly repetitive – it is one of the most bizarre and unsustainable public transport projects on Earth. As for “the rest”, I assume that includes bus rapid transit (BRT), which has had mixed results.

In Cape Town it has, admittedly, taken several hundred cars off the road, but, in Johannesburg, it has merely resulted in a switch from minibus-taxis to buses. Hardly any motorists have moved over to public transport in Johannesburg. If “the rest” includes the Passenger Rail Association of South Africa (Prasa), we’ll need to write a separate column.

Back in 1999, Fred Wentzel, a student studying towards a Master’s degree at Rand Afrikaans University (now University of Johannesburg), wrote a thesis entitled: Proposals for the coordination of formal public transport in the Johannesburg area. It was based on a bus-by-bus analysis of the Soweto operations of Putco, a company that provides services under contract to the provincial government, which, incidentally, budgeted for a loss of R2,812 billion against the Gautrain in 2016/17.  

At the time Wentzel did his research, the most recent government publication was the Moving South Africa report of 1998, which correctly identified “past land-use patterns” and “sub-optimal spatial planning” as two of the four strategic challenges to be addressed. Wentzel’s study therefore proposed new routes and schedules that would significantly improve the linkages between Soweto and its neighbouring areas in terms of spatial coverage, frequency of service and hours of operation.

A by-product of the recommendations was that the proposed routes would reach destinations as far away as Midrand and even Pretoria, passing through many “white” areas on the way. This would mean that higher-income groups could be encouraged to use bus transport rather than private cars.

Two years later, in 2001, Wentzel’s study became the core of a Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) report to the provincial government. To this day the report has been ignored, while billions have been spent on schemes like the Gautrain and BRT, despite the fact that an improved basic bus network could be introduced at a much lower cost.

Sixteen years later, South Africa is now well and truly in junk territory, but that hasn’t stopped the ANC-run provincial government from announcing expansion plans for the Gautrain, relying on the usual spurious claims of job creation, higher property values and black empowerment.

Last month’s Hopping Off described the wretched travelling conditions experienced by workers trying to reach Sandton (the richest square mile in Africa, remember) from places like Soweto.

Here’s a research topic for the Wits Department of Governance: Take a ride on Putco trip 9116, the 05:45 from Soweto to Sandton, and ask the passengers whether they are being empowered.

Wentzel’s thesis could be a useful source of reference material .  


Vaughan Mostert lectured on public transport issues at the University of Johannesburg for nearly thirty years. 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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