By Fiona Forde
A couple of years back, as the country began to ready itself for the 2010 World Cup, Thabo Mbeki's government began to take a look at the public transport system.
They knew the country was badly in need of a modern-day system and 2010 provided the perfect opportunity and impetus to drag the structures that we had kicking and screaming into the 21st century.
Taxis had been on the map for quite some time, and with the exception of Cape Town, had become the main form of transport in most cities. But they were unregulated, unruly and unable to reach the entire population.
Though they provide services from and to the most remote townships and settlements, they are often the most expensive form of public transport for those with least money.
And though they ferry millions of people to and from their destinations every day of the week, there are millions more who are too terrified to use them, a consequence of the taxi drivers' reckless and aggressive behaviour.
Besides, the 200 000-strong fleet does little good for traffic congestion, given their ability to ferry only 16 people compared with the larger capacity of a bus.
Ideally, light rail would have provided the perfect alternative for city transport but it was deemed too expensive to contemplate, even though the same government would end up throwing R27 billion at the Gautrain, the largest and most expensive project in our transport history, albeit one that's designed to service only the first economy once complete.
It was at the same time that transport expert Dr Lloyd Wright attended the South African Transport Conference and explained what a Bus Rapid Transit system could do. He had years of experience and plenty of successful stories under his belt, particularly in the developing world.
"As we watched the presentation we had a sense that in this lies the solution," recalls Rehana Moosajee, the transport chief in the office of Mayor Amos Masondo in Johannesburg.
BRT is relatively cost-effective, in terms of the required infrastructure, and relatively quick to roll out. With an eye on 2010, the government knew that with BRT, it would be able to tell Fifa that South Africa would have a reliable transport system within the required time frame. And so it was that the authorities of Johannesburg and Cape Town set about developing their respective BRT plans, which in Cape Town is referred to as IRT or Integrated Rapid Transport.
But it wouldn't take long until the taxi operators began to resist.
What they feared about BRT was the end result: a public transport system that would largely rely on buses and no longer on taxis. In response, the government explained that this wouldn't be the case. While BRT would be bus-heavy, it would always need taxis to feed into it.
The taxi industry was not convinced.
Who would own it, they wanted to know. You will, the respective authorities responded, explaining that the option was there to buy into the system as a shareholder. Who will run it, they asked. You will, came the response.
The city authorities claim there will be no loss involved and insist there are enough BRT jobs to go around for everyone who is lawfully employed in the bus and taxi industry as it is.
However, a quick glance at the figures would suggest otherwise. Take Cape Town's Phase 1a as a case in point. On that route, which is designed for trunk routes from Atlantis through to the city centre and on to Hout Bay, and a number of feeder routes, there are currently 726 taxis and 217 buses operating.
Yet only 156 buses will eventually service the future IRT system, though they will be complemented by a number of feeder vehicles. Already the shortage is glaring.
City planners insist the number of IRT buses does not paint a full picture, however, as IRT is more than just the vehicle operating system, and includes station management, fare operations and security systems. All told it will require a staff complement of about 1 400.
Working conditions are promising under the new deal. Drivers will work six-hour shifts. They will be paid a minimum wage, complete with health insurance, a pension plan and three weeks paid leave a year, conditions that stand in stark contrast to their current set-up. Currently, they work 15 to 17 hours a day.
However, the number of jobs and working conditions in the new system do not paint a full picture either. What BRT requires is that taxi owners relinquish their existing operations and buy into the system.
City authorities would, in effect, buy them out of their taxi operations, and with the money the taxi owners would buy a shareholding in that particular BRT route. Yet it is hard to see how that route, or any other for that matter, would generate enough of an income to satisfy so many taxi operators. In addition, not all operators may want to buy back into the new system; some may decide to take their golden handshake and walk.
How the cities of Cape Town and Johannesburg will calculate those buy-outs remains to be seen. It will surely be based on existing turnover, about which the taxi operators will have to come clean.
Given that the existing industry is largely unregulated, it is thought that a lot of their earnings are not fully declared. If they now declare the whole lot, so as to maximise their buy-out, it won't be long before the taxman comes knocking. If they don't declare their full earnings so as to stay below the SARS radar, the buy-out will not be attractive enough for them to walk. And it appears to be a lose-lose situation, either way.
In Johannesburg, the city is ready to go live with the Rea Vaya route, which stretches from Soweto to the city centre and beyond. But there is ample resistance as it is to BRT, before discussions even begin on the issue of buy-outs.
Taxi operators claim they have not been fully briefed about the project, though to their credit the authorities have spent more than a year, and millions of rand, on roadshows and talks to explain what is really in store. While their efforts went some way in allaying the industry's concerns, it's the figures and the finances that have yet to be finalised.
One taxi official tells of a meeting with Jeff Radebe at which the then transport minister assured him he could guarantee him a 65 percent stake in BRT. "With all due respect, minister, why would I accept 65 percent when I already own 100 percent?" the official responded.
It's an argument that any businessman in his right mind would hold on to and one that forced Jacob Zuma to the table two days head of April's election.
Zuma listened to what the taximen had to say and agreed there and then to put the process on hold until the new administration was in place. It was a politically astute move; Zuma knew that if any sector of society was capable of hijacking the election it was the taxi owners and driversand he was not prepared to take that chance.
Even the more radical elements of the taxi industry were satisfied with that move. Mvuyisi Mente, the spokesman for the Western Cape wing of the National Taxi Alliance said: "We felt Zuma understood us. He listened to what we had to say and we feel he understands our fears."
Zuma returned to the issue of the taxis in his State of the Nation address last week. "In April this year, I gave an undertaking to the taxi industry leadership to defer negotiations relating to the operation of the Bus Integrated Rapid Transit system until after the elections," he said.
"We undertook to allow more time to deal with the concerns of the industry," he continued, and with that he handed the matter to the new Minister of Transport, S'bu Ndebele, who resumed discussions with the industry this week.
The BRT is a lethal inheritance from the Mbeki era and places Zuma in the most invidious position: damned if he does and damned if he doesn't.