Rea vaya BRT
Johannesburg - The Rea Vaya coaches were the new celebrities in town as they completed their first journey from central Johannesburg to Soweto on Sunday.
As the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system buses travelled along the city in their designated lanes they were greeted by waving, clapping and singing fans wherever they went.
At every station along the route, some festooned with balloons, long queues of people, young and old, many waving SA flags and singing rea vaya (we are moving), waited to board.
People in wheelchairs also got on the buses, which had been designed to be particularly friendly to the disabled, elderly and mothers with children.
One of the women waiting to board at Thokoza station said she fully supported the system because "taxis are scraps... They don't treat us all right".
Another eager commuter said the new buses were perfect for "people like me". Stretching her arms over her hips, she said "in taxis... you are supposed to squeeze, now I know I'm going to get my seat".
Ticket prices range from R3, R5 and R8 for trips along various parts of the route, from the CBD past Coca-Cola Park (formerly Ellis Park Stadium) and into Soweto.
Full operations would start on Monday. The system was expected to get rolling in cities including Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and Pretoria in the near future.
The buses were also expected to play a large role in transporting soccer fans during the 2010 World Cup.
While the BRT system had raised the ire of the minibus taxi industry, who believed it threatened their livelihood, various government officials and BRT representatives who attended the launch adopted a conciliatory tone.
They urged negotiations to continue, promising the taxi industry had a large role to play in the new public transport venture. Many also warned that violence and disruptions to the bus operations would not be tolerated.
Among those coming along for the ride on this "historic day" - as Johannesburg mayor Amos Masondo deemed it - were Gauteng Premier Nomvula Mokonyane and transport and roads MEC Bheki Nkosi. Also present was Transport Minister Sbu Ndebele who said the taxi industry would have a "significant" stake in the BRT system.
"They are going to get a significant stake. Whether it is going to be 51% or 60%, this BRT is not about profit," he said.
"It is not about the taxi industry. It is about the person who has the right to vote and now has the right to movement."
The system would redress a legacy of apartheid that had placed black townships on the outskirts of town and decreed "our cities must be white at night".
"I want to see young people go out at night... We must accept our people as free, free to work but also to play."
Effective public transport was key to ensure economic growth.
"We can't have a modern economy like South Africa have a public transport system that comes to a stop at 21:00."
The buses would run from 05:00 at the earliest to 20:00 at the latest on weekdays, at intervals of 10 or 20 minutes. On Saturdays it would run from 06:00 to 16:00. Eventually it was hoped to have a 24-hour service.
Ndebele said the government wanted to thank the taxi industry for its "maturity" in electing not to go on strike in protest against the system.
"They are a ready-made sector to make true, powerful BEE co-operatives," he said of the minibus taxi industry.
"What interest do we have in running the taxi industry down?" he asked.
SA Commuters' Organisation president Stephen Sangweni said the taxi industry would not be allowed to hold the country to "ransom".
"Once one commuter dies this time, we are going to take this situation back to 1976. If they don't want to be part of the transformation they must step aside."
Representing the taxi industry was president of the Top Six Taxi Organisation Sipho Mtambo.
He denied allegations that the City of Johannesburg had not consulted the taxi industry.
"We had more than 32 workshop consultations."
The real problem was that there was a "power struggle".
"Everyone wants to lead the BRT because they see it is a good project."
He said the taxi leaders did not respect the government.
Meanwhile, the SA National Taxi Council (Santaco) said the strike against the BRT system, expected to take place on Tuesday, was not called off.
"We will only decide at a meeting with all stakeholders on Monday whether the strike will go ahead or not.
"We have to meet with all the taxi associations affected by the BRT system," spokesperson Thabisho Molelekwa said.
Molelekwa said they would explore all options at Monday's meeting "to establish whether it would be viable to proceed with action".
"But, we are still willing to negotiate with government. The dialogue between us as far as we are concerned should continue," he added.