Rea Vaya is 'more than a transport project'

The key to Rea Vaya's success was participants being willing to learn. (Photo: KPMG)

The key to Rea Vaya's success was participants being willing to learn. (Photo: KPMG)

The decision taken by the City of Johannesburg Council in November 2006 to upscale its strategic public transport network plan to a full bus rapid transit (BRT) system was a critical step in the revolution of transport in the city. It signalled the beginning of the journey towards implementing Africa’s first fully-fledged BRT system.

Amos Masondo  (the former executive mayor of Johannesburg) had, since the awarding of the bid to host the Fifa 2010 World Cup in South Africa, implored all South Africans to “use the pressure of having the eyes of the world on the city and the country to leave legacy beyond the event”. 

His constant refrain was: “Long after the last whistle is blown and the guests have departed, what will our citizens look back on and know that those improvements were the result of hosting of the world cup and had bettered their lives? How will we deliver the programmes and projects which we intend to do anyway with greater focus and urgency and for the benefit of society?” 

It was against this background, and attempting to find solutions to the taxi industry leaders saying: “Get Metrobus out of Soweto or else …” that the seeds for Rea Vaya were planted.

Johannesburg’s transport landscape, like so many other aspects of city life, has been distorted by apartheid’s spatial planning. The practice of creating single function, dormitory townships, sufficiently close to central business districts and economic activity, but sufficiently far away from white suburbia, laid a poor foundation for city-making. Coupled with a policy shift in the 1970s that was clearly car-centric — including the building of freeways and the removal of dedicated tram lines and trolley buses to create on-street parking — and an ailing public transport system, it made aspiration to private car ownership and use desirable. 

At that point, two-thirds of Johannesburg households did not have access to a private car. A large percentage of public transport trips were being undertaken by minibus taxis, which had captured 75% of the market share against the alternative, subsidised modes of transport. Any suggestion of transforming Johannesburg’s public transport system without the involvement of the minibus taxi industry, the best example of self-made broad-based black economic empowerment, was simply not feasible.

Rea Vaya created a range of innovative, creative and pioneering ways to solve seemingly complex challenges. Some of the key ingredients to its success include a willingness to learn, strong leadership, the creation of a level playing field and sound inter-governmental relations.

The first key cornerstone of success to the Rea Vaya project was encompassed by the eagerness of the city leadership — both political and administrative — to learn together and from public transport operators in cities and countries that had walked the road before. Study tours, workshops, ongoing learning and knowledge exchanges created an environment where project leaders and teams were not afraid to ask questions and seek assistance. This environment of “let’s learn from others and adapt to our own realities” was an important component of the approach. The use of multi-disciplinary, skilled teams that worked across traditional departmental silos was another innovative ingredient.

The ethos of partnership between the City of Johannesburg and the minibus taxi industry leadership was at the heart of the successful launch and roll-out in under three years from the date of inception of the concept (November 2006 to August 2009). The visionary leadership of the late Sipho Mtambo, the late Sicelo Mabaso, Eric Motshwane and over 350 shareholders in Piotrans who were willing to engage, embrace change and pioneer unchartered terrain were major contributory factors. Their willingness to stay the path even in the face of violent opposition and threats laid the basis for a partnership in which confidence and trust were gradually built. Masondo’s determination, quiet strength and behind-the-scenes support was as vital an ingredient.

Furthermore, the investment in technical advisors to the minibus taxi sector — including Future of Transport Consulting as well as the appointment of a team of highly skilled facilitators to chair the negotiation process — put the industry and city on an equal footing in negotiations, which proved essential to the project’s success. The desire of the respective teams to succeed and find each other even when divisions sometimes appeared insurmountable led to the formation of Piotrans, a wholly taxi-owned company, to operate Rea Vaya Phase 1A. Finally, Rea Vaya built on the power of sound inter-governmental relations. The project was funded via the Public Transport Infrastructure and Systems Grant and national ministers, provincial MECs, premiers and mayors worked together to ensure that as difficulties arose they were appropriately managed.

The story behind the scenes of Rea Vaya is one of partnership and perseverance and needs to be shared in its entirety.

Rehana Moosajee is director of Rehana Moosajee Consulting rehanamoosajee.co.za