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Commuting crisis

The path to Cape Town’s teetering public transport is long foretold.

Reeling from the shocking scenes of unrest in KwaZulu Natal and Gauteng, Cape Town experienced chaos of a different kind when the city’s teetering public transport system fell apart on the evening of 19 July.

Tens of thousands of commuters, desperate to get home after a day of work, were left stranded as ongoing taxi violence, in which 24 people were murdered in July alone, brought the minibus taxi industry to a halt. Combined with Golden Arrow running a skeleton service after buses were attacked and a driver shot in the face that very morning, and Metrorail, already running at less than a quarter of their capacity, at 3.08pm announcing the temporary suspension of their southern and Cape Flats lines, 19 July became Cape Town’s public transport day zero.

Although Golden Arrow and Metrorail significantly increased their services, minibus taxi services remain disrupted, affecting people’s ability to get to work, to clinics, and to schools. 

Speaking on Thursday 29 July, Cape Town High School deputy principal Liesl van Egeren said absenteeism was at 40% due to pupils from Cape Flats suburbs not being able to commute to school. The Matric class was particularly hard hit, said van Egeren. Contracted or arranged taxi transport to the school was also affected by the continued fear of violence.

Seapoint High School secretary Jessica Fassie said they had an absenteeism rate of about 25% due to continued disruption of the minibus taxi industry, as many pupils travelled in from areas such as Khayelitsha, Gugulethu, and Philippi. “Even if they get here, they are late,” said Fassie.

This is despite provincial transport MEC Daylin Mitchell having closed the contested Bellville – Paarl minibus taxi route which sparked the most recent violent conflict between the CATA and CODETA taxi organisations. 

“The situation is dire,” says Khayelitsha Development Forum chairperson Ndithini Tyhido. He said workers are in danger of being fired for being continuously late to work, or having hourly wages docked despite their ability to get to work being beyond their control. 

“Without a shred of doubt there are people who have lost their jobs,” said Tyhido. “They are heads of households.”

Cape Town’s station deck, usually a bustle of minibus activity, was all but abandoned on Tuesday 20 July as minibus taxi services ground to a halt amidst ongoing violence. Photo: Ashraf Hendricks/GroundUp

“Hawkers at taxi ranks losing income, taxi drivers, even taxi owners, the entire value chain. The only people benefiting are the hitmen.”

Warning bells

The almost complete public transport breakdown on 19 July and the continued vulnerability of the system was not just due to a series of unfortunate events. There is strong evidence of a lack of political leadership at all spheres of government, and failure to implement progressive public transport planning policy developed within the City of Cape Town. 

And like Cape Town’s water day zero – which was averted thanks to water saving efforts by residents, along with the arrival of early winter rains – warnings of a pending disaster have been aired for at least a decade.

A diversity of safe and reliable public transport options are needed if reliance on private taxi operators to perform a public service underpinning the city economy is to be decreased. The City and provincial government recognise rail is a key factor in achieving this. In a press conference on 27 July, Premier Alan Winde stated rail “is the backbone of a transport system”. This has also been stated by Cape Town Mayor Dan Plato. Research consultant Gail Jennings points out rail is not subject to congestion on the roads during peak hours, can carry large numbers of people at once, is safe if managed properly, and has lower carbon emissions than buses, taxis, and cars. 

However, Cape Town’s rail backbone is broken. 

Former provincial transport minister Robin Carlisle penned an opinion piece in the Cape Argus almost exactly 11 years ago – 27 July 2010 – warning that lack of investment in Metrorail would lead to its collapse. This, said Carlisle, would “take the whole public transport system down with it”. He has been proved right. At the time, he stated Metrorail was carrying almost half of Cape Town’s commuters on less than 60% of the train sets it requires. “We need at least 40 additional train sets to provide decent passenger rail service,” he wrote.

Metrorail spokesperson Riana Scott says it currently operates 20 sets. This is half the number of additional train sets Carlisle deemed necessary 11 years ago.

Attempts to fix the City’s public transport backbone

In late 2012, the City’s newly formed transport authority, Transport Cape Town (TCT) initiated an agreement with Prasa CEO Lucky Montana to jointly invest in Cape Town’s rail infrastructure. Plans included a new line to Blue Downs, a line to Atlantis, a rail link to the Cape Town International Airport, and transfer of PRASA-owned land along rail reserves to enable the City to create housing and hard boundaries to prevent land encroachment. But how PRASA was looted and left for scrap under Montana has been well documented and very little came of this agreement.

The Metrorail Central line beyond Langa, which would service Nyanga, Philippi, Mitchell’s Plain, and Khayelitsha, has not operated since 2019 due to vandalism, theft and crime. Informal settlements have since been established on the line and reinstating the service will cost R1,2bn, says Scott.  She said the rail service to Eerste Rivier and Strand has also been closed after infrastructure was stripped during the hard lockdown.

But beyond Prasa’s failures, Cape Town’s public transport vulnerability is linked to its failure to overcome its apartheid spatial planning legacy, and its MyCiti N2 Express service to Khayelitsha and Mitchells Plain has not operated since April 2019 despite its commitments that year to have it reinstated by September 2019. Operations ceased following disputes by N2 Express shareholders, which include CODETA.

Former City mayco member for transport, Brett Herron, who in November 2018 resigned and then joined former mayor Patricia de Lille’s new GOOD party, said the national Land Transport Act allows for devolution of public transport management to municipalities.

Herron said when the TCT was established, the City started working on the transfer of Golden Arrow, which is regulated by province, to City management in order to integrate it with MyCiTi to avoid parallel or duplicate public transport services. 

When the TCT became the Transport and Urban Development Authority (TDA) in January 2017, discussions were alsoinitiated with Metrorail’s mother body, PRASA, for the City to manage the rail and signalling infrastructure. He said Metrorail would provide a train service, in much the same way as the MyCiti where the City owns the roads and contracts vehicle operating companies to operate the buses. Herron said after negotiations stalled, an intergovernmental dispute with former transport minister Dipuo Peters was declared. Shortly before his resignation, she agreed to the City taking over regulation and contracting of the Golden Arrow service. Rail, he said, was still under discussion.

He said the problem is that we’ve had six national transport ministers in eight years and four provincial transport MECs since 2011. The devolution rail was always a stumbling block because the conversation had to restart every time we had a new minister.

Despite previous work, executive mayor Dan Plato says in 2019 the City began “the lengthy process of understanding the impact of devolving the rail function from PRASA in a phased and financially responsible manner to the City of Cape Town”. 

But unlike the earlier model where the City would take care of the rail infrastructure and contract Metrorail to run the trains, Plato said the City would operate the service through a concession company.

He said a funding for a “high-level business plan” for this was turned down by National Treasury, who deemed it wasteful expenditure. This, he said, forced the City “to abandon the very critical exercise”. The City has petitioned the national ministers of transport and finance, and the President, for permission to relaunch the study but “to date, we have not received a response”.

Transport problem is a housing problem

Jennings and Wilkins, who is managing director of Open Streets Cape Town, both state that Cape Town’s public transport problem is inextricably linked to its failure to break apartheid spatial planning barriers. If poor and working class people were not confined to the city’s margins and forced to travel tens of kilometres to work close to the city centre, we wouldn’t be so reliant on minibus taxis, buses and rail. Wilkins suggests if people were housed closer to work, they could cycle or even walk to work and school if public transport grinds to a halt.

Jennings said the City’s inability to overcome apartheid planning means a mass of people move from peripheries to the inner city in the morning, and back again in the evening, with very little movement in between. This “tidal movement” required a large public transport fleet which then runs largely empty during the middle of the day, which makes it commercially unviable. This, said Jennings, was part of why the continued rollout of the MyCiti bus service had stalled. This was where Minibus taxis, because they were privately owned and relatively unrestricted, had the flexibility to move to where there was high demand, as profit, rather than the needs of passengers, were their priority. 

The TDA was established precisely to incorporate housing, transport, and spatial planning into one authority. Despite progressive integrated policy development and catalytic spatial planning interventions, the TDA lasted just two years. The TDA was supported by former executive mayor Patricia de Lille, but when she clashed with the DA and resigned as mayor in October 2018, the TDA was disbanded by incoming executive mayor Dan Plato at his first council meeting of November 2018.

The transport authority was returned to being a directorate. It is a department without political leadership. It has not had a mayoral committee member since Felicity Purchase was appointed Speaker in March this year. Plato is acting mayco member for transport until a new appointment is made. Reasons for not having appointed a new mayco member for transport were not given.

Solutions to Cape Town’s public transport crisis have been developed for decades, but unless there is political leadership and implementation, Carlisle’s words penned in 2010 will remain prophetic: “Greater Cape Town will become an urban sprawl, its transport arteries clogged and congested; its atmosphere even more polluted; its economy stagnating and its apartheid configuration forever institutionalised.”

Anele Ndamazi, who works as
a cleaner at a takeaway in the city centre, used to walk to the Heathfield train station on the central line and ride the train to town. When the central line stopped operating in 2019, he reverted to using minibus taxis. Ndamazi said taxis stopped operating

in his area when the violence flared up this past month and so he walks two kilometres to Manenberg and waits up 30 minutes or more to board a Golden Arrow bus which winds its way through Athlone before arriving in the city centre.

“If you are chasing 11am you must get out at 8am to get to the bus stop and travel the Western Cape just to get to town.”

He says the lack of reliable transport means he sometimes up to two hours late for work and has his hourly wages deducted.

“The taxis are ruling our transport system. These motherf***ers…they can’t talk to resolve their issues, they shoot each other instead,” said Ndamazi.

“We are trying to put food on the table, imagine, trying to survive and you die in taxi violence.”

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