BRT system angers taxi drivers ahead of World Cup

Smart new public buses already roll past Johannesburg’s two World Cup stadiums, but anger is simmering within the often violent mini-bus industry, which feels sidelined from the tournament.

Thousands of mini-bus taxi drivers marched through Pretoria last week, storming through the gates of the Union Buildings to deliver a letter complaining about plans to prevent them from ferrying fans to the stadiums.

“The frustration is going to increase,” said Ralph Jones, spokesperson for the United Taxi Association Forum.

“At the end of the day, we are not part of the World Cup. When we ask why, people say that we will toyi-toyi and strike,” he said.

Johannesburg’s collective taxi drivers for decades enjoyed a monopoly over mass transport as the apartheid government systematically ignored the transportation needs of the black majority.

The new public transport network, the Rea Vaya bus rapid transit (BRT) system, aims to place more than 85% of Johannesburg’s population within 500m of a bus network.

Instead of weaving through traffic with the city’s famously aggressive taxi drivers, BRT users make a train-like commute in dedicated lanes with regular time-tables and designated stops, paying less money than the taxis charge.

The buses so far link Soweto with central Johannesburg, making stops near the downtown Ellis Park, and Soccer City, venue for the June 11 opening and the July 11 final.

The BRT was launched in August 2009 and in February added a network of shuttle buses as part of a phased expansion scheduled for completion in 2013.

At each step, taxi drivers have protested violently against the programme, burning tyres to obstruct roads and firing shots at BRT buses.

Two people were injured by gunshots during last year’s protests. A Rea Vaya driver, whose house was petrol-bombed last month, claimed he was targeted because he left his job as a taxi driver to work for BRT.

Similar protests have also marred the launch of a new bus network in Cape Town.

“We’ve lost a lot of customers.
A lot,” said driver Peter Mashakeng, slouched in the front seat of a minibus at Johannesburg’s Metro Mall transport hub, where he’s been waiting more than four hours for his turn to run his route.

“You can see how many taxis are here. It’s too much. We are killing each other because of these jobs.”

Sceptical
The unrest has tarnished the introduction of BRT and put commuters’ nerves on edge.

“I’m still sceptical about [BRT]. You don’t know when you are going to be ambushed by striking taxi drivers,” said Collen Mokwena, a first-time rider.

Yet Mokwena said he also feels sympathy for the taxi drivers.

“I do feel bad for them. They’ve also helped many of us,” he said, saying taxis used to carry people free of charge at times during the struggle against apartheid.

BRT spokesperson Conel Mackay said taxi drivers should not feel threatened by Rea Vaya.

“Rea Vaya, on the face of it, seems to challenge their monopoly. However, there is sufficient market demand for the two systems to co-exist,” he said. “Most current BRT bus drivers are former taxi operators and the management structure of the Rea Vaya system will [have] significant taxi involvement.”

But taxi driver Johannes Shoai said he is sceptical.

Shoai said he applied for a job with BRT and has yet to hear back.

“All we want to know is, is BRT going to give us jobs?” he asked.

“Not all. They can’t give all. BRT can’t put 5 000 buses now on the road. It’s impossible.”—AFP

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