Shooting at buses

Shooting at buses

After a slow start, Johannesburg’s first phase of bus rapid transit (BRT) finally came online in late August, three months later than originally planned. But the city’s excitement over the new public transport system was to be short lived as BRT buses came under fire – literally. The taxi industry’s rejection over the planned introduction of a new dedicated public bus service in the City of Johannesburg has been well documented by the media. Some industry players have rejected it outright, while others have insisted on more negotiations with the city, unsatisfied with what Johannesburg has offered the taxi associations.

For example, earlier this year, FOCUS attended a discussion session hosted by Rea Vaya, Johannesburg’s BRT system planners, at which many notable taxi industry players were present.

The message was clear: Rea Vaya’s assurances that the taxi industry and its drivers would be compensated for routes lost by taxis in favour of BRT busses were not accepted.

“We do not only want to be participants in this initiative, we want full ownership of it,” said Sicelo Mabaso, chairman of the Top Six Taxi Association. “We want to be BRT’s sole custodians.”

Rea Vaya’s offer to the taxi industry of full tendering rights – with no outside competition to speak of – was not good enough. The associations repeatedly asserted that the taxi industry wanted intellectual rights over BRT, as well as all administrative rights, operational rights to the stations and ticketing, even billboard ownership. In short, the taxi industry wanted BRT to be theirs and theirs only – or there would be hell to pay.

The argument was based on the premise that, for many years, government has allowed the industry to grow, prosper and provide the public with transport, with no governmental assistance. “Previous governments have left us to run ourselves,” said Eric Motshwane of the Johannesburg Taxi Council. “We cannot be expected to now change overnight. In addition, we need to discuss carefully whether BRT is in the best interest of our industry or not.”

The verdict of the taxi associations and councils has repeatedly been a steadfast “no” –  BRT is not good for their industry. The fact that it is good for greater Johannesburg and the public as a whole has been largely ignored.

Having hard-won routes taken away in favour of BRT has been unfathomable to taxi operators, resulting in a complete mental block where BRT is concerned, coupled with a multitude of unreasonable demands – many of which appear to be driven by greed.

BRT will provide enormous opportunities, not only for the public, but those operating it as well, and the taxi associations do not want to miss an opportunity.

So, instead of tendering timeously, encouraging drivers to go for BRT training and hopping onboard the BRT phenomenon, the taxi industry has blocked BRT at every turn.

By April 2009, taxi unrest with the government over BRT had reached such a state that President Zuma was forced to put a halt to BRT preparations leading up to the FIFA Confederations Cup, which was to be held in June 2009, in favour of still more negotiations.

And yet, although it appeared as though the taxis had won that round, the negotiations once again foundered and the City of Johannesburg made the decision to launch the first phase of Rea Vaya – with or without taxi support or involvement.

Monday, 31 August saw phase 1A of Rea Vaya fully operational – and with tremendous public support. Unfortunately, taxis striking in protest to the launch of the new bus system meant that more people turned to BRT than had originally been expected, resulting in a demand that far exceeded capacity.

The good news was that there was quick and widespread public support and acceptance of the system. The bad news was that taxi upheavals continued to cast a shadow over Johannesburg’s attempts to rectify the poor public transport situation. And then all hell broke loose.

By Tuesday, 1 September, 2009, most taxis were operational again, and Rea Vaya’s second day was far smoother than its first, until the early evening when gunmen ambushed and opened fire on two BRT buses carrying passengers.

One civilian and one off-duty policewoman were shot in the process, although there were no fatalities. Bullets did penetrate the buses however, and a clear if shocking message was sent: not everyone in Johannesburg was cheering on the bold launch of BRT in the face of taxi anger.

Shooting at buses Taxi associations across Gauteng and the country have condemned the violence, stating categorically that the actions of the gunmen involved were not sanctioned by the industry and therefore absconding from any responsibility over such violent anti-BRT protests.

Unfortunately, the fear, greed and lack of understanding of the system fostered by the associations among their members have lead directly to the violence, sanctioned or not.

In the week following the shootings, Carte Blanche, local broadcaster M-Net’s weekly exposé show, conducted a number of interviews relating to BRT and the show’s presenter, Derek Watts, actually used the system as well.

A taxi driver interviewed for the show was clear about how he viewed BRT: he estimates he has already lost 60% of his income to BRT in its first week of operations.

It was always clear that the introduction of BRT would affect taxi operators, however. This was not a topic the City of Johannesburg or Rea Vaya shied away from. Instead, the taxi industry was offered the aforementioned full tendering rights to operate BRT instead. Drivers who chose to abandon their minibus taxis in favour of BRT buses would work set hours, their pay would not be determined by the amount of passengers they carried and they would receive benefits – a far cry from driving a taxi. However, they would require BRT bus training and they would belong to a regulated industry.

For those not wishing to own or operate buses, later phases of Rea Vaya will require feeder routes to be operated by minibus taxis and buses, but once again these will belong to the Rea Vaya system under tender contracts.

Yet, instead of joining the system and working with the City of Johannesburg, it has been rejected time and again as bad for the taxi industry. But what about what’s good for the city? Or the country?

Public transport in South Africa is expensive, unreliable, and at the mercy of a volatile industry at best. BRT is the solution to these problems. It is regulated, safe, efficient and cheaper than catching a taxi.

BRT is good for the public, a fact the taxi industry either refuses to see or simply does not care about. And so the conflict continues, to the point where armed guards were placed at all operational BRT stations and onboard buses throughout the week following the shootings. After all, the City of Johannesburg needs to protect its
R1 billion investment, and it is refusing to bow down and admit defeat to the taxi industry.

In fact, Gauteng’s local government strongly condemned the violence, with spokesperson Thabo Masebe public stating his office believed the shooting to be an act of cowards bent on using violence to intimidate commuters and the peace loving public.

Mayoral committee for transport member, Rehana Moosajee, was quick to state that the BRT system would continue to operate despite the shooting, adding that “we remain firm in our resolve to continue the Rea Vaya BRT starter service”.

A month after the shooting and well into Rea Vaya’s inaugural phase, nothing further has disrupted South Africa’s first BRT phase. With the City of Johannesburg’s full weight of support behind the system, perhaps taxi disruptions and anger over the system will be circumvented after all.

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