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Tough talk on taxi hooligans

Lynley Donnelly talks to Jeremy Cronin about the problems bedevilling public transport.

After a week of violent protests against Johannesburg’s bus rapid-transit system, Rea Vaya, which saw the petrol bombing of a BRT driver’s home, Deputy Transport Minister Jeremy Cronin tells the Mail & Guardian that sections of the taxi industry are blocking transformation.

M&G: What is government’s view on the strike by Johannesburg taxi drivers disgruntled by the roll-out of additional phases of the BRT?
Jeremy Cronin: It’s an anti-service delivery protest — not a workers’ strike, but a bosses’ strike. Sections of the industry are trying to block transformation and they mobilise vulnerable and atrociously exploited workers in the sector. We’re very encouraged by the overwhelming response of Sowetans who, now that they have experienced the early phases of Rea Vaya, are coming out strongly in support of the BRT. Apart from threats, there have been shootings and the petrol bombing of a bus driver’s home. We condemn these and the general disruption of the lives of thousands of working-class people. Those responsible must face the full might of the law.

M&G: What of taxi associations’ claims that despite the introduction of a national joint working group, there is inadequate consultation with the industry?
JC: Some who make these claims are actually resourced by government to enable them to contract their own specialist advisers, to engage with us and, above all, to keep their grassroots membership informed. Santaco, for instance, received a R12-million budget allocation from the department of transport in the last financial year, and they have free office accommodation in our Pretoria head office. We don’t expect them to be a sweetheart structure. They need to engage with us robustly and defend the interests of the estimated 400 000 operators, drivers and ancillary workers in the sector. Given the often informal, atomised and volatile nature of the sector, we appreciate that it is not easy to represent it. However, we often feel that those who speak on behalf of the “entire industry” are often speaking for themselves.

M&G: What progress has been made with the national joint working group and when are talks likely to be completed?
JC: The NJWG process was set up to discuss broad policy questions of concern to the minibus sector and should be clearly distinguished from the city-led negotiations around the roll-out of BRT and other integrated public transport systems. The city-led engagements must conclude with operational and other contracts that help to bring affected taxi (and bus) operators into the new integrated public transport networks. At the city level, we’ve said there’ll be no nett loss of jobs and no loss of legitimate business for those directly affected. But to meet this commitment, we need to ensure that the shareholding of affected former taxi operators in the new bus operating companies, for instance, is not diluted by non-affected parties diving in and trying to get a slice of the action.
Progress in the NJWG has been slow, largely because of the difficulties experienced by taxi structures in putting together teams that will enjoy relatively effective legitimacy in the eyes of their industry colleagues.

M&G: Does government believe the taxi industry in its current form is sustainable?
JC: It’s the taxi industry itself that’s telling us sustainability is a huge challenge. We must all acknowledge the sector’s important role — it’s the one chance of mobility for millions of South Africans. However, there are extremely high levels of dissatisfaction among taxi users. I believe that minibuses will continue to be a major form of public transport for many years, but we all need to work together to ensure that the services they provide are safe, accessible and affordable. We also need to address the plight of workers in the sector, the great majority of whom work 17- and 18-hour shifts and few, if any, are paid the declared sector wage.

M&G: Similarly, does government believe that road use by private vehicles in its current form is sustainable?
JC: Absolutely not. The congestion on many of our cities’ roads is economically and environmentally unsustainable. It’s the consequence of many things — including the absence of effective public transport and the spatial nature of our towns and cities — ugly urban sprawl, the reproduction of apartheid-era dormitory townships, and much more.

M&G: Is the BRT World Cup-ready?
JC: The first-phase infrastructure and buses of Johannesburg’s Rea Vaya will be an important part of the city’s 2010 transport. In Cape Town there will not be a BRT service as such for the World Cup, but some of the infrastructure that is ready will be used to provide a new bus service from Cape Town International Airport to the CBD and the stadium. In other host cities BRT systems are either not envisaged or are still in planning.

M&G: Where does government see the taxi industry fitting into an integrated public transport system, and ultimately the kind of transport system envisaged in the departments National Master Plan 2050?
JC: Minibuses will remain a major component of any public transport in our country. But we must also break out of the habit of uni-modal thinking. There is no reason why today’s taxi operators and drivers should always be stuck within one particular public transport mode. We want to see today’s informalised owners and workers becoming part and parcel of formalised, multi-modal integrated systems.

M&G: It was stated in Parliament that it is unlikely that a full roll-out of BRT is possible without sustainable sources of public transport funds. Is government committed to funding large scale roll-outs in all the large major centres and how does it plan to sustain this?
JC: Government has already committed significant amounts of budget, through the Public Transport Infrastructure Systems Grant to the roll-out of BRT and other forms of public transport systems. Treasury appreciates that this funding needs also to assist with the operational side of things as the systems come on stream. We are also, of course, already subsidising Metrorail to the tune of some R9-billion a year, and many scheduled bus service to the tune of some R3,5-billion. We have also allocated money to taxi recapitalisation. The challenge with these various operational and capital subsidies is that they, too, are uni-modal in character. Often we are subsidising different modes that are competing and undermining each other on the same trunk routes. Everywhere in the world, public transport operations generally require public subsidies. We believe that if we plan, rationalise, integrate and massively improve our public transport systems we will significantly increase public ridership (and therefore fares) while at the same time we will be using subsidies more effectively.

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Lynley Donnelly
Lynley Donnelly
Lynley is a senior business reporter at the Mail & Guardian. But she has covered everything from social justice to general news to parliament - with the occasional segue into fashion and arts. She keeps coming to work because she loves stories, especially the kind that help people make sense of their world.

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