#230 Neglect the issue until it is a crisis: transport policy in SA

TRASH-TRENCHES: Once this road is built, will the trash go away? Will there be a bike lane and sidewalks? Or will these be ignored, because we’re building a road. It matters, the road matters. It is much needed, long awaited. At the same time, where will the trash go? Or is that outside of our scope? Neglect, and they will come.

…the time between print and practice is paved with exposure, education, training and experience.

1972 Airbus gave birth to its A300B, confronting Boeing and entering the competitive aviation space. 1976, Soweto Uprising triggered a wave of transformation as children’s bodies were piled on the township streets communities plied after they were forcefully removed.

1994, South Africans queued to vote in a free and democratic election. Same year, Amazon was founded to ride the internet as a global logistics and information company—starting with books. 

Airbus is now one of the two major aircraft manufacturing companies internationally; Amazon is one of the key logistics companies around the world. Today, Toyota dominates the manufacturing of minibus taxi vehicles, the primary public transport mode in SA—we assemble here. Tomorrow, will we own our own? Perpetually importing, aren’t we? Local solutions on paper, great, practice—wait, hold on: it will take time. Oh, another thing, we need to confront our proficiency in neglect. 

Oh, another thing, we need to confront our proficiency in neglecting policy issues. 

Philosophical amnesia 

We can’t do that now, because post 1994, the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) lost its philosophical underpinnings and found the convenience of tender-preneneurship, without sufficient oversight and integration. Philosophically the premise of the RDP was to empower citizens, to build their own, and become their own agents for change within a network of human settlements that liberates them. The RDP was never about housing! It was an integrated approach to socio-economic progress and eradicating the results of apartheid– it was not a short-term stint, it required consistent focus!

TAKING ADVANTAGE OF IGNORANCE: “RDP” has to me always meant ‘housing’, affordable housing sprawling everywhere. But it had to do with much more. I found 8 years ago, that the RDP was about us, citizens, rising up and building our nation. It was a deeply focused programme, that required intellectual and spiritual alignment, oversight and implementation.

The idea, was to articulate and express “spatial transformation” before the language buzzed through our professions. Instead, as the South African Cities Network highlighted, land-use planning perpetuated the apartheid framework: sprawling townships. It is only in recent years, that agencies such as the Johannesburg Development Agency (JDA) have focused on reforming spaces (i.e. Jabulani precinct), a long-distance transport interchange, and new non-motorised transport infrastructure. 

It took a decade to cycle in and the neighbourhood development programme is still pursuing this avenue, but it remains limited by and to the reality of the market: townships, nationally, are usually far from commercial and recreational activity. 

This historical spatial fragmentation is an explosive embryo, that the Spatial Planning and Land-Use Management Act, will contend with for longer than most of us can imagine. Why? Simply because the time between print and practice is paved with exposure, education, training and experience. Relevant stakeholders who actually work on these issues still need to work through the “established” ideas, that are possibly in conflict with their beliefs, previous experiences and convictions (the birth of bias). 

When Airbus or Amazon emerged, South Africans were still institutionally tied to systems and mechanisms of oppression, few made it through to build empires in industry, commerce and technology. Even fewer made it through to transforming the transport sector– road freight, minibus taxis. 

Transport policy of neglect 

It’s largely a philosophical issue. The philosophy of neglect until it’s a crisis. Technologies have been proposed, promoted, marketed and offered to the transport sector on so many occasions. It could be government departments, municipalities, authorities and entities—oh hell, do they lag behind the curve? 

Shell-shocked ministers did not know what to do when Uber landed, although it was making headlines around the globe. As systems integration, payment platforms, and data collection solutions emerge at haste, and in pace, our policies still scratch the surface talking to “automated vehicles”. The systems value chain that leads up to a level 4 automation is not even in our vocabulary, because we are wrapped up in the aluta continua narratives of then—severely irrelevant now. 

Technology has proven to liberate people, industries and systems at scale. See this in Rwanda, a relatively small country; or Kenya a massive country with urban and rural complexities: both “suffering” from digitisation. South Africa’s minibus taxi industry—a few attempts to digitise, but the barriers to reforms hold passengers hostage, keeping conveniences at bay. 

Metered taxis were ride-on-call for decades on end, and no one took it that these association-based entities with regional rights would ever be challenged. When the blood bath ensued, policy makers scrambled to make reforms—“irrational” reforms. Not because there was no know-how, but clearly because there is a hidden policy of neglect and fear. 

Neglect the policy issue until it reaches crises levels, and fear drives transformation—that’s for domestic issues. If we are keen to appease the international foreign investment market, it is different. Adopt an approach that is internationally acceptable as the norm, and work it until it produces the physical results we’re looking for. 

Neglect and the shock doctrine

Bus Rapid Transit is an example of both of these—the Gautrain is sandwiched in between: both could have transformed the minibus taxi industry for good. Oh, big question: was the industry interested, capable and keen to shift from Associations to Transport Operating Companies? Or should the Companies Act be amended to reflect such structures in the political economy? No answer. What exactly has the South African Taxi Council (SANTACO) been doing with state resources when fundamental issues of its founding persist to date? 

Turn it on it’s head with the road freight industry: what on earth is really going on there? Only insiders know the tight-knit cursive notes and letters of intent holding the backbone of many horses to their trailers. Take another look, legitimate structures exist in labour and lobbying—but then again, who’s interests have they served from inception to date? Look around, every other quarter could be another road-freight-fright headlining our bright screens. With all the task teams past, there’s not enough at the end of the tunnel. 

After 2015, the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (PRASA) literally went down in flames. It was a petrol bomb festival for the anarchists; a copper mine for the looters; and a blatantly mismanaged entity scrambling corruption, inefficiency and dreadful governance in one pot. Then War Rooms splattered the sewage and everyone had their ears up, until we heard of an administrator—who would chart the path to reform even without a legal basis for such an appointment. Care to admit? 

No, just shock and trend. 

One more: South African Airways. Same thing. After 2009, when the balloon was getting too big to fly—no one said: “pause”, “think”. Instead, the airline pressed on, bailouts kept coming in, and the whole got deeper. Taking off from a mud bath, business rescue has gone into ‘mothballing’ and all that is left is to see the seizure and foam flushing out of the airline. 

Instead, it’s another parachute to save the airline from terrible “landing”—can’t say crash. It shocks and trends more than learners struggling to get to school—how high profile, how elite, how many other multigenerational issues do we neglect for this thrash? 

Headliners for the burning itch. 

Point is, neglect is a habit, and crisis is a hobby—in this country at least. It does not seem so, it’s a recurring event. Both drive change and remind, or should remind us, of the Shock Doctrine that drives what appears to be a “reactionary state”. Truly, not. 

Quite the opposite—the neglect builds legitimacy, it makes the need for reforms more obvious, more visible, simply justified. On purpose? I doubt, it could simply be coincidentally human, like smiling in humour or sarcastically. Either way, that’s our reality: we had to wait for new technology to arrive, embraced it, but did nothing with it institutionally. 

Brazil, China, India, and Russia do the opposite—when new technology hits their scene, they use it, make it their own, and, yes, dominate! Or try to. Neither of them are prefect. Some used the military to get rid of their taxis, others are trapped in a politically repressive state.  Another mirror, here on the receiving end. Maybe we have it good. 

“PEOPLE-CENTRED SOCIETY”– This is not up for debate, all the neglect of people’s issues informing the policy discourse binds us to a lack of freedom. Or freedom for those who can afford it. This is not dignity guaranteed for all– no, it is worse: a lost sense of legitimacy.

Thank you for reading.

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