238 | There is a crisis brewing beneath our transport sector

WITHOUT A HORSE WE GO NOWHERE

We desperately need a transport office that is willing to scratch beneath the surface. That is getting to a point where our focus is beyond the topical, but historically neglected issues. It seems as if this office is focused on the grit, issues that matter.

PRASA: broken-fixed

We must commend them for their attempts to resolve the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (PRASA), through a War Room and a “legally”, but “unlawfully” appointed administrator. 

Pillaged infrastructure, tattered buildings, and a dilapidated passenger rail service operates a poor-quality service for the lowest income households. Safety issues as simple as managing the boarding gaps, remain an issue of critical concern—but the entity failed a common-sense cause: when security contracts are cancelled, who will protect the infrastructure? Failed contingencies hang over the rail lines and even the appointment of a new board, the team is already leaking out for some reason. 

Yet, the new trains are coming, Gibela is assembling them locally, and it will take time before we see the results in full form—the challenge is if common sense would prevail and prepare the entity for this ‘new leaf’. Scratching beneath the surface here would have been an honest reflection of the genuine operational and service design needs of the entity and its social function, the politics, investigations and legal actions should be dealt with separately where possible. 

Beneath the surface of the current service as a norm, is the fact that the quality is unbearably poor, but commuters keep climbing back into this metallic abusive relationship. As if there are no other transport modes, no other alternatives; as if commuters are prisoners inhailed into the city. There is no getting used to being suffocated by a long commute which echoes one’s alienation: trapped in a moving metal cage that was bent during apartheid. These trains have churches, and graves. They carry uncleansed memories of injustice churning through our neighbourhoods and cutting townships off the city’s lights. 

Mr Fear Fokol gave fokol of the R1.35bn

The liberators at the front lines, our minibus taxis, fought the good fight to get people truly moving. Yet, the minister’s point of entry is between ‘Mr Fear Fokol’ and ex-gracia relief of an invisible R1.35bn. The stomach-in-chest-out flavour of his language should represent courage, but it breeds a lack of confidence from a distance. At the same time, the gesture revealed a sentiment that the industry has long awaited: being taken seriously as part of the national discourse. Parallel to the National Taxi Lekgotla, our President wrote about the importance of public transport, and how it matters to his office and the nation at large. 

Meanwhile the minister acknowledged the existence of the National Taxi Alliance at a meeting in Pariament, the NTA felt unrecognised at the Lekgotla as Santaco is considered as the ‘representative council’. Here the question around whether such an industry can truly only have one voice in government’s ear whispers about ‘freedom of association’. We see this same spirit in the road freight industry, and other transport sectors—not one labour union or association represents everyone’s interest. Yet, the drive toward reform is contentious, important and will be controversial under the subsidy regime—beneath the surface one must ask if ‘subsidies’ are truly the solution, or just another trap? The level of critical debate and discourse around the technicalities of these issues seems to exclude even the most seasoned researchers and practitioners in public transport. This makes me wonder if they will only be invited to comment, not contribute, or formulate, or rebuild. We are back in 2007 all over again, but this time no one really knows that the market is changing faster than regulators can type. 

Bicycles and road safety finally on the agenda together

I recently commended the minister for including “bicycles” in his policy statement around road safety this month. Yes, a 365 campaign is a good thing, we welcome it. BUT, it falls short beneath the surface. Critical questions such as the extent to which the Road Safety Strategy has been implemented need to be asked. If provinces and municipalities will get funding for road safety related programmes at street level, since 35% of fatalities on our roads involve pedestrians. There should be as much effort to keep motorists accountable, as much as pedestrians and cyclists have the neighbourhood and ward level support to ensure safer streets. These are the most vulnerable people, they are the majority of people who use the roadway space. Beneath the surface, we see South America shining a bright light on the constitutional right of safe mobility and access—this is a deep reform that would prioritise mobility and access at a constitutional level. We see our ministry’s office largely grappling with surface level issues—not their root causes time and time again. It is a crisis of deadly proportions. 

Slippery slope between treason and trucks

Many freight transport drivers have died as a result of the missing root cause analysis that we need to manage the ‘foreign’ driver attacks, murders and acts of arson and economic sabotage. The rogue elements are increasingly becoming distanced from the formal organisations and entities that we have become familiar with. However, the root cause remains unknown, far beyond the fringes because all of this keeps happening, every year. How does that even make sense? That every year truck attacks for the same reason should occur, like it is a celebration of some sort. It is peculiar. Unlike inn other countries, truck drivers protest for a variety of reasons, but they are not self-mutilating. In SA, we see at as a recurring event, implying that whatever concessions are made behind the scenes through the task teams or political arteries are just not uprooting the ‘onkruid’. That’s the issue, scratching beneath the surface long before the crisis explodes is critical in volatile market such as this one. 

Temporary peace reached

Nevertheless, peace was found, the NTA’s strike passed, the truck attacks faded, and PRASA is on its tracks. Road safety is back on the headlines, and we will hear the statistics when the year starts. However, with so many loose ends, the latent risks will overwhelm the office if it all happens at once. Many of these issues are fundamentally fruitless, they are just a norm, and seem to be the way things should be. But I believe things should not be like this, our transport economy can be different, it is different, it just needs to shed its old skin. 

Either the ministry’s office can peal it off, or the market will. If the office does it, it will be gentle, surgical and precise; if the market does, it will be chaos, a break-down, a revolution of sorts. One way or another, something lurks beneath this glossy surface, something avoidable but inevitable. 

Thank you for reading.