In South Africa, copy-pasting has been so fashionable in the case of dealing with buses and minibus taxis without thinking about the point of view and how trust is an asset. You could be surprised by how people behave or how things are in systems unknown to you if you’re coming in as an observer– not a participant. The trend now is that countries and continents are projecting their social fabric, beliefs and approaches upon day to day routines on each other. There’s a large chance that poorly specified modulations or ways of doing things, may lead to counter intuitive patterns of interventions. In other words, where decisions about and around transport and travel are made by persons who observe more than they participate there is a big chance that something might get missed. The worst case scenario is that the misunderstanding could get so intense that all forms of trust fall apart with no way to reconcile them– oh and the money is already spent in the wrong direction at that time.
Things that are normal for an average public transport commuter, car driver or ride hailing app user are particular to each mode or service platform. As such, one can not be a spectator in the event or object of issues being observed. You have to have actual skin in the game.
Point of view matters
There is a lot to loose when policy makers, legislators and even commentators are out of touch with practical realities– in addition to statistical and other sources of evidence. Interventions can be counterproductive because they are not in tune with what is actually happening, how services actually work and what institutions are actually doing. So counter intuitive that they inebriate the state retrogressively. In other words, some interventions can intoxicate the state, keep it moving at a confused pace imagining that the country is moving forward.
Here is an extract from a tourist blog and her views about “taxis” in SA. It highlights how a lack of familiarity with any system creates stereotypical ideas that the communication system is complicated or so-called informal:
Scrunched in with 15 strangers after having climbed over them to find an empty seat, the springs in the seats poked my legs and back. The wheels seemed as if they might fall off at any moment, and there was no air conditioning to speak of. During the first trip, the taxi driver got a signal and pulled a quick U-turn to avoid driving into a police checkpoint. By the time I got out of the first taxi, I felt sick and gasped for fresh air. The taxis take routes like buses, and you frequently have to transfer to reach your destination. In addition, there is a complicated (to me) set of hand gestures that signal to the driver where you want to go. There is no discussion once you get inside.
We see the manner in which ditaxi are discussed in much of the writing today, divorced from inquiry and conversation without intentions beyond learning how things are done. It is the same tonality, a similar confused and condescending voice around this service. Whereas in reality, a simple conversation could reveal more about the service, its role and necessity.
May 1976, Steve Biko was on trail for one of those pathetic arguments in the apartheid regime. During this trial he recollects a very important conversation:
“I would remember specifically one example that touched me, talking to an Indian worker in Durban who was driving a van for a dry-cleaner firm. He was describing to me his average day, how he lives, and the way he put it to me was that: I no more working in order to live, I live in order to work. And when he went on to elaborate I could see the truth of the statement.
He describes how he has to wake up at 4 o’clock, half past four in order to walk a long distance to be in time for a bus to town. He works there for a whole day, so many calls a re thrown his way by his boss, at the end of the day he has to travel the same route, arrive at home half past eight 9 o’clock, too tired to do anything but to sleep in order to be in time for work again the next day.”– Steve Biko, I Write What I Like, 2004, Picador Africa.
Envy, banks and short attention spans
Steve Biko, was talking about how black people are forced into a state of “self alienation, self-rejection”, appreciating all things white and seldom appreciate our own intelligence. Spanning through innovation of minibus taxis in the 1970s, to the lack of sidewalks in many towns– it is as if the sensibilities of care, common passion and paying attention to our issues have been replaced. Replaced with envy of the other, attentive to where we can get debt for this and that– seldom working on our own in specific detail. Based on Mr Biko’s diagnosis he extends this hatred as a product of something constantly repeated by “academics” in the transportation research sphere:
“With I think some variance in terms of the times and so on and the work situation, this is a pretty typical example, precisely because townships are placed long distances away from the working areas where black people work, and the transport conditions are appalling, trains are overcrowded all the time, taxis that they use are overcrowded, the whole travelling situation is dangerous, and by the time a guy gets to work he has really been through a mill; he gets to work, there is no peace either at work, his boss sits on him to eke out of him even the last effort in order to boost up production. This is the common experience of the black man. When he gets back from work through the same process of travelling conditions, he can only take out his anger on his family which is the last defense that he has.”
This is the crisis of public transport to this day, in this country. But the story goes much deeper. Structural adjustments between the IMF and the World Bank in Africa were and remain to be a directive force in the type of investments African states pursue– other than the Chinese today. During his most recent visit to SA, Joseph Stiglitz argued that while Asia boomed, economic instruments applied in Africa by the IMF and the World Bank suffocated the primary ingredients toward industrial development. These buses and trains were part of an elaborate artificial policy aimed at ensuring and perpetuating the segregation which continues today. The quality, nature and form of transport investments in the country reveal not only a deliberate sense of ignorance on the part of the custodians of these projects– but a deep lack of understanding root causes. Between cities and neighborhoods self-informed transport, like taxis, walking and cycling dominate African pathways–navigating through dirt and tar alike. Until the observations come from a genuine place, practitioners operate with a sensitivity to history and truth, then interventions will be expensive and smart– but politically unwise, although useful.
For the 2010 World Cup, rapid transit investments were injected into South Africa resulting in an expensive transit complex against the backdrop of queues of minibuses waiting to be recognized. These systems were funded by a World Bank instrument, which correspondence between our government and this agency read along the lines of enabling access to World Cup activities, over enabling access to what the people needed most. It is the same tone taken when events such as the EcoMobility Festival emerged in Sandton the most dense city with respect to wealth. Instead of rebuilding townships such as Alexandra– which are already more ecomobile than Sandton itself, the focus is on motorists who have access to the internet, electricity, good water and probably represent the minority (like you reading this, or me typing this). Questions such as why not use what we already have? Why not improve City Council Buses? Why not invest in minibus taxi industries? All add up to an equation of disappointment, distrust, then anger and eventually a deeply volatile hatred as a result of transparent and obvious neglect. While efficiency and dedicated infrastructure supported by priority treatment are important, the political economy of trust is equally valuable. Neglecting the potential capital accumulation that can emerge from existing city buses, minibus taxis, cycling and walking is the easy way out into debt over development.
The equipment of trust
Just as all road users trust cautious and conscious behavior along the roadways, participants in transport markets should be able to trust each other, society and regulators. Once upon a time, public transport services gave families that one extra hour to spend together before working to live again. In the Black, Coloured and Indian households they were dignified community services equivalent to education, nursing and law enforcement in the social economy of trust–if not common-unity. They are now all part of an untrustworthy body of movement, infected with criminality as society is too, worthy of destroying, burning in the same voicelessness seen in the case of Metrorail trains and public buses. But somehow, these taxis remain resilient, because of an innate and historical awareness that we might loose. They know that it would be at the cost of the entire public if the limbs of trust collapsed. At this time, no other service can bear the weight of tasks, things, people and ideas they are responsible to deliver. As with anything in this country, many work to feed their families, others work to pilfer and cause trouble. The day we shade their shelters, register these owner-operators as professionals, treat them with deep dignity and long-lasting respect the animosity, captivity and tensions will fade. Swelling subsides with ice over it.
These are old policy issues, rotten and soft now but remain unattended to. Fumbling sideways the political machine is suffocated by dust rotting oil between its gears. Slow to take much needed steps, the red tape wraps the boxes of kickbacks, while the popular voice burns rolling stock out of exhaustion from all the empty promises and lies. Breathlessly holding on to the last barrel of affordable oil, no one has the guts to change where Africans stand on our own land, drills and reserves. Sideways the scale keeps tipping as if it has not leaned over enough.
Institutionally broken trust between policies documents and public action makes the most important steps seem increasingly invisible as impatience gains importance over effort and reason. Now with the minibus taxi industry back on the agendas, transport and technology remain undermined; and the battle for genuine regulatory behavior and changes are in some pockets of the political economy. In this dire state of affairs, movement continues, as the battleground becomes multimodal and multi-service: class lines will become thicker.
Unless if interventions that walk in lifesways are suitably formulated and applied from and at local level, we will continue talking about structural issues and comparing each other. No old head will know that the iron age of gears today relies on algorithms and advanced alloys; ethical systems; and a culture of trust. Here we are again this year with so much lost and so much gained in the transport sector–just before November floods and December heatwaves. If they’re as bad as some years back, cities and towns better be ready and resilient.