Transportation Struggles in the Post-Apartheid City

by Jon Orcutt

The transportation system most South Africans face today is a mixture of patched-up, third-rate public transport inherited from apartheid and a chaotic, unregulated minibus-taxi system that is a source of swelling public complaint.

But political transformation in South Africa has opened the door for equitable and sustainable transportation policies. New government policies seek to reverse apartheid policy by dramatically expanding and improving public transport and discouraging urban motoring. But the application of these policies across the country is uneven, and possibly in serious jeopardy.

The evolution of South African transportation policy is not only of great concern to South Africans seeking to integrate their badly fragmented cities. It is also of interest to transportation advocates globally, because:

  • The combination of high social wealth, huge transit-depended populations and a political mandate for sweeping change contains very strong potential for the development of modern transit- and pedestrian-based cities.
  • In one major metropolis, policymakers are advancing principles that western environmentalists and transit advocates have succeeded in advancing only slightly — financing a “transit first” policy by taking urban motorists for the congestion, pollution, and other harms they cause.
  • In the many cities where transportation reform is receiving little or no political attention, growing grass-roots action in the townships could produce transportation policy insurgencies by poor and working class people on an unprecedented scale.

Rising incomes and redistribution of wealth are likely to produce fast growth in South African households with access to a car. South Africa’s per capita income is indeed approaching a level that, in other countries, has touched off rapid motorization. The growth of motorists as an interest group will complicate the politics of transport and may dull the urgency of adopting “public transport first” strategies. That in turn will perpetuate the profound have/have not gulf and leave South Africa’s cities blighted and deserted.

Background: The Apartheid City

Apartheid required a massive program of spatial engineering. Establishment of largely rural African “homelands” or bantustans and internal passports attempted to control urbanization so that black “influx” was tailored to the labor needs of white-controlled industries. In the cities, black populations were restricted to residential townships on the metropolitan fringe, necessitating long trips to work and other destinations on white-controlled transit systems.

The establishment of legislated apartheid after 1948 accelerated the destruction of black settlements near urban centers and the removal of their populations to the urban periphery. The razing of Sophiatown, one of the most culturally and politically vibrant black communities in Johannesburg, and the removal of its population to an area south of Johannesburg’s mining belt in 1955 was only one notable case. In other cities, industrial zones, transportation corridors or other barriers separated black townships from white commercial and residential areas.

Apartheid Transport

The blueprint for post-apartheid development issued by the African National Congress and its allies, the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), notes: The policy of apartheid has moved the poor away from job opportunities and access to amenities. This has burdened the workforce with enormous travel distances to their places of employment and commercial centres, and thus with excessive costs. Apartheid transport policy deprived the majority of the people of a say in transport matters; exposed commuters to vast walking distances and insecure rail travel; failed to regulate the kombi-taxi industry adequately; largely ignored the country’s outrageous road safety record; paid little attention to the environmental impact of transport projects, and facilitated transport decision-making bodies that are unwieldy, unfocused, unaccountable, and bureaucratic. For these reasons, transportation has a prominent history in township and anti-apartheid politics. Nelson Mandela’s first political action was participation in a 1943 mass march supporting a bus boycott in Johannesburg’s Alexandra Township — the boycott effectively rolled back a fare increase. The 1955 Freedom Charter, which launched the African National Congress on its 35-year drive to end minority rule, specifically called for the provision of public transport adequate to serve all urban dwellers.

The transportation void was filled by 12-20 seat minibus taxis, or “kombis.” The government encouraged small black capital to invest in minibuses as it retreated from its investment in public transport. At the same time, the reality of accelerating urban migration led to the formal abandonment of “influx control” in the mid-1980s. Burgeoning squatter settlements on the edge of already marginal townships had no access to formal services, and even residents in long-established townships increasingly had trouble reaching destinations as jobs and white populations began to move away from central cities.

Kombis: “Economic Miracle,” Transport Chaos

The kombis were thus well-suited to navigate the increasingly complex and de-centered metropolitan areas of the late 1980s and 90s. They are now the central feature of South African urban transport, accounting for up to 50% of many urban transport markets and competing with buses and trains on major routes. Taxi industry growth was fueled not only by need, but also by the barriers black capital faces elsewhere, and because driving is a relatively ubiquitous skill in the townships.

The unfettering of private transport services produced the first major black-run South African industry, but the absence of regulation also promoted chaotic service and schedules, the absence of safety standards or accountability, unregulated fares and the operation of hundreds of vans in major corridors served more effectively by buses and trains.

Worse still is the violence between rival companies or associations vying to control over-supplied routes and stations. National, provincial, and metropolitan government initiatives to bring stability and regulation have fallen short. Though some measure of peace seemed to have been established in early 1996, violence in several cities flared again later in the year. Official efforts have generally not sought to situate the kombis within an overall passenger transport plan based on expanded public transport, and have failed to address fundamental problems of regulation and oversupply. But the unabated conflict has fed growing public support for revival of traditional public transit.

Cape Town: Transit First

The RDP’s recommendation for a strong “transit first” investment policy is being developed into a metropolitan action plan in Cape Town. The Provincial (Western Cape) Transport Minister, Leonard Ramatlakane, has proposed a series of parking and road levies to reduce the impacts of urban driving and generate revenue for expanded public transport. In a recent opinion piece, Ramatlakane wrote that dramatically expanded public transport was essential to overcome the legacy of the apartheid city and that motoring taxes are “to make [motorists’] costs closer to the costs they impose on society. These costs include congestion, pollution, traffic enforcement and road accidents.” The minister, a former trade union activist, is working to broaden support for the strategy by using the media and recruiting support among other provincial and municipal official. Cape Town’s new regional transport plan aims to reduce car commuting by 20%.

Ramatlakane has also made a priority of changing a monopolistic bus company concession policy that has inhibited new service in cities around the country. A new plan to significantly increase the metropolitan passenger rail system’s capacity will be released next year. It dovetails with Cape Town’s “Metropolitan Spatial Development Framework,” which restricts new development at the urban periphery to promote higher density and contain sprawl. It also designates established transport corridors as recipients for new business “nodes” and much-needed new public housing. Cap Town also looks likely to be the first region to integrate policy-making and resource allocation among its various transportation agencies into a new “Metropolitan Transport Authority,” as required by national law. If structured and managed effectively, the MTAs could be critical mechanisms for reorienting transport policy along the lines described in the RDP.

Johannesburg: Disarray

But Cape Town appears to be the exception among South Africa’s major cities. In Johannesburg, by far the country’s largest city, no public figure has emerged to put transportation on the public map the way Ramatlakane has done for Cape Town. On the contrary, Johannesburg’s most well-known transport figure of late is a mid-level bureaucrat who unilaterally altered many bus routes and schedules without any public notice. Other than problems in the taxi industry, transport issues seem all but ignored by top leadership.

On the streets, levels of bus service have remained static since the last years of the apartheid regime, while capital investment in the commuter rail system — with the exception of a few high-profile projects like the renovation of Johannesburg’s central train station into a regional intermodal bus/train/taxi hub — is barely sufficient to repair old infrastructure. Regional planners saw that rail station upgrades in the townships are not being carried out in coordination with other metropolitan transportation and land use planning initiatives. Meanwhile, a number of expensive highway expansion projects are underway. Institutional competition and resistance, as well as political inattention, is hampering the formation of an effective Metropolitan Transport Authority. The provincial (Gauteng) Transport Ministry, traditionally in charge of highway construction and operation, favors a provincial scale MTA, encompassing Johannesburg and Pretoria, while Johannesburg municipal and metropolitan governments favor MTAs for each city.

Mobilizing the Masses

Growing popular discontent with bad conditions and the pace of change has the potential to make transportation reform a serious social movement in South Africa. Key roles would likely be played by grassroots civic associations (many of which are integrated into a national organization, the South African National Civic Association), rail passenger groups, local political organizations, and environmental groups.

The key issues for launching potent grassroots transportation improvement campaigns include listed below. Modest research and organizing capacity could turn each of these areas into a major arena for significant public mobilization:

  • Regional fair-share campaigns for public transport, especially serving townships vs. roads that benefit rich car owners. One estimate says South Africa spends about $18 billion on cars every year, so the problem is not lack of money, but the political power to channel it where it is most needed. Advocates should support efforts like Cape Town’s policy of using motorist user fees to boost public transport.
  • Fair share campaigns for pressing township infrastructure needs like pavement, drainage, sidewalks, lighting and better transit stations vs. high per capita investment in well-off, infrastructurally rich communities.An important component of this need is reflected in pedestrian safety. 50% of black traffic fatalities are pedestrians, in large part because of nonexistent or poor walking facilities.
  • Structuring metropolitan planning and resource allocation to recognize the full fiscal, social, and environmental costs of the automobile/ highway system and to prioritize the needs of the transit-dependent. Intervention in the formation of the mandated Metropolitan Transit Authorities presents an opportunity for grassroots initiatives to heavily influence the direction of future policy.

Jon Orcutt is an editor of Mobilizing the Region, the weekly bulletin of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign. 281 Park Avenue South, 2nd Floor, New York, NY 10010. Email them at tstc(at)tstc(dot)org.

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