Cape Town -
MyCiTi bus driver Johannes Gordon is so tired he often nods off at traffic lights.
“All the other cars go when the light turns green, but I sometimes find myself just sitting there in a daze. It’s up to the passengers to shout, ‘Driver, it’s green,’ and then I snap out of it.”
But that’s not the worst of it.
He drives the long route from the city to Hout Bay along Victoria Drive, and he describes his “special technique” to avoid falling asleep and letting the bus plunge off a cliff.
“I am a Christian, so I pray to God. I pray for him to keep me awake, and about other things. I find that the conversation with God helps me to stay awake. But my eyes still burn.”
A wildcat strike on Wednesday by drivers working for Transpeninsula Investments (TPI), one of three companies contracted to provide the MyCiTi service for the City of Cape Town, seriously interrupted the service. Drivers told the Cape Argus they were endangering their own lives and those of commuters because of inadequate rest periods and exhaustion.
But TPI has denied any knowledge of these grievances and charged that the drivers had not used the proper channels to engage the management before going on their unprotected strike.
Half a dozen striking drivers spoke to the Cape Argus at the offices of the Transport and Omnibus Workers Union (Towu) in Observatory.
At issue was the split shift, which ensured that drivers were available for the morning and evening peaks. But the drivers said they did not have enough time to rest between the shifts.
Gordon said that after a few days on the split shift, he regularly nodded off behind the wheel. Commuters “would not step near a bus” if they knew how tired some drivers were.
When working a split shift, the drivers complain of having as little as an hour and a half at home, between being dropped off by the staff transport shuttle at night and being picked up again for the new day’s work.
Driver and Towu shop steward Rutherford Kiet described a typical day’s work on the split shift.
“Staff transport picks you up at 3am and then the bus picks up other drivers. At around 5am you are in the depot, and your shift starts. Sometimes you have to wait and only drive out on your first trip around 6.30am. You drive until around 10 or 10.30am.
“Then there is a break for a few hours, but nowhere to sleep – just steel chairs at the depot. There is not enough time to travel home if you live in Khayelitsha or Mitchells Plain.
“Your second work period is between about 5pm and 10.30pm, then back to the depot. But everyone has to wait for the last bus (which comes in at about 11pm) before the staff transport takes us home. Sometimes you get back at 1.30am. Then, you have to be ready to go again at 3am.”
Attempts to raise this grievance with TPI had fallen on deaf ears, Kiet added.
Frustrations boiled over on Wednesday and workers embarked on an unprotected strike, apparently triggered by the dismissal of driver Kayalethu Stokwe, who on Friday was found guilty by a disciplinary committee of negligent driving and fired.
The hearing followed a collision in which he drove into the back of another bus on the fifth day of split shifts.
He blames the crash on sleep-deprivation.
“I worked as a Golden Arrow driver for many years. I crashed because I fell asleep, not because I am a bad driver.”
Commuters were caught off guard when buses on the CBD, Dunoon, airport and Hout Bay services all failed to arrive on Wednesday morning.
Ghaalid Behardin, a TPI director, said: “This is all news to me. Why have these grievances not been raised with us via the proper channels? Instead, the agitators embarked on an unprotected strike and intimidated their colleagues into a work stoppage through threats of violence. That is unacceptable.”
However, Nezaam Davids, of the SA Road Passenger Bargaining Council, said he investigated allegations of unlawfully short rest periods and underpayment on March 10.
He found that both allegations had veracity, held a meeting with managers at TPI and issued a compliance order to the company.
The Basic Conditions of Employment Act prescribes a minimum daily rest period of 10 or 12 hours.
Towu president Fuad Inglis said that conditions at TPI amounted to “modern-day slavery”.
At first, the city avoided queries about the drivers’ working conditions, saying that it was inappropriate for it to comment on a labour dispute between TPI and its employees.
Later, mayoral committee member for transport Brett Herron said the allegations were concerning.
“If these allegations are in fact true, they would certainly impact on the safety of commuters and the staff of MyCiTi service.
“The city will investigate them with urgency.”
The workers had agreed to return to work on Thursday, and TPI said that as long as the drivers were at work, the services would be restored.