Skip to main content

By Dennis Webster

Commissioned by PARI, first published in Business Live

System’s problems are not measured by the distance between Joburg and New York but rather in the miles between Soweto and Sandton

A recently circulated subway-style map of Johannesburg’s passenger rail system laid out MetroRail’s lines — from George Goch to Germiston, Randfontein to Braamfontein — in the same user-friendly blues and pinks one might find on the New York subway or the Paris metro.

The links between MetroRail and other public transport systems such as the Gautrain appeared seamless. Jump off here, get on there. And as the map made the rounds on social media so the first-world fantasies it engendered grew louder. If only Johannesburg’s trains matched the efficiency embodied in that map, users pined, what a city that would be.

But the pining for world-class public transport belied an all-too-common elite misunderstanding of SA’s public transport. The shortcomings of the country’s rail transport are not measured in the distance between Johannesburg and New York. They are measured in the distance between Soweto and Sandton. And that distance grows longer by the day.

Over the past 15 years or so SA has experienced a mass flight from rail to other forms of transport. In 2009 about 700-million passengers got around by train. Today it is barely 126-million. This exodus has been driven on the one hand by the stubborn inefficiencies of rail, and on the other by a vicious new cycle of mismanagement and active sabotage. As rail infrastructure and security contracts are mismanaged, so trains run less frequently, and cable theft becomes easier.

In theory, the best means of transporting people from where they live on urban peripheries to jobs in central locations is by train. But the bare realities of taking the train in SA make it unworkable. Before the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic MetroRail was running at 60% availability in Gauteng. That means every worker waiting on a platform stood a 40% chance of missing the train.

As a result, working people have been forced to spend more of their monthly pay on transport in the midst of a morbidly stagnant economy and generationally alarming cost-of-living crisis. Passengers who could otherwise get a monthly train ticket for a little more than R500 are now spending nearly double that amount on taxis.

The answers to many of SA’s more pressing social problems are openly and hotly contested. But only the more deluded would argue against the logic and urgency of efficient and mass public transit. Why, then, are we further than ever from achieving it?

SA’s cities are hostage to spatial legacies that have been so deeply entrenched that it will be the work of generations to fully undo them. The apartheid state intervened more aggressively in the country’s urban fabric than its democratic successor has ever managed. With the baton and the bulldozer, it forced black residents out of sight and mind and into urban peripheries, while with almost endless ribbons of concrete it turned SA cities into temples to the private motor vehicle.

Perhaps the best tool to undo these divisions — public transport — has been systematically blunted. Since the mid-1980s government has been disinvesting from transport, which was deregulated and opened to the market in 1988. Today passenger rail bears all the hallmarks of SA’s faltering project of state-led development as vested economic interests grow ever stronger in the vacuum left by an incapable state.

In this regard, passenger rail is starting to mirror the wider freight rail system on which SA’s economy depends. Transnet, at the mercy of mafia-style “business forums” stipulating the price for work they are often unskilled and unequipped to do, loses about 100km of cable every month. And all the while the company is playing a losing game of catch-up, paying money to go out and repair infrastructure and shouldering the blame for the even higher costs of the freight that is lost during the repairs.

And yet the wreckage those vested interests have meted out on the country’s passenger rail infrastructure has been greeted for the most part with indifference. While grassroots mobilisation on rail issues has borne some fruit in Cape Town, the extensive looting and destruction of Gauteng’s railways has been met with very little community resistance and anger.

While social movements have historically pushed the democratic SA state to its highest watermarks — think of the delivery of antiretroviral drugs — they have largely abandoned popular rail activism, hopping off trains and onto taxis.

There is much to lament about the taxi industry. A soon-to-be launched class action, which will seek billions in damages from Toyota for the lives lost due to allegedly unsafe taxis it sold to the market, is a reminder that the taxi industry is defined by gangsterism, from the operators all the way up to manufacturers. It is a black hole for labour inspection and enforcement. And taxi politics constitutes a binding constraint that regularly renders even the best intended transport interventions useless.

Yet taxis remain the transport of choice for SA’s impoverished and working classes. Much of this has to do with minibuses having responded to the country’s grotesque apartheid geography better than any bus or train ever could. Getting people to and from their front doors — “the last-mile problem” in transport planning parlance — is exceedingly difficult in cities where large parts of the population are relegated to peripheral, sprawling matchbox-style housing. But not so for minibus taxis. In the words of one former senior City of Johannesburg transport official, “the competitive advantage of the taxi is the sho’t left”.

Building state capabilities in the transport sector will depend in part on one of the softer skills of governance: the ability to listen to people. Understanding the taxi industry better should be at the core of a transport-capable state. A grasp of the knotty politics of the industry’s continued obstruction of safer and more efficient forms of public transport, as well as of its enduring appeal to ordinary people, will be crucial to the state’s ability to eventually deliver transport systems that are responsive to and effective in SA’s cities.

Ultimately, however, a state capable of delivering mass public transit will be a state versed in difficult decisions. The vested economic interests gnawing away at existing rail systems will have to be disciplined towards development rather than destruction. And the car obsession that continues to dominate at the expense of wholesale investment in public transport will have to end. SA can plainly no longer afford to perpetuate apartheid-era car worship by subsidising private motor vehicles.

This is a politically difficult trade-off. These are the same cars used by suburban elites, the same cars around which the apparently endless new luxury security estates are being built, and the same cars being driven by the politicians and officials responsible for transport policy and delivery. But it is precisely the kind of trade-off on which a more public transport-capable state will depend.

In the absence of such a capable, developmental state, politics that owe fealty to private gain and rate-paying classes rather than democratic imperatives is allowed to flourish. Where railroads should spring forth, highways will continue to multiply.

• Webster is a freelance journalist commissioned by the Public Affairs Research Institute and Association of Former Directors-General to attend a series of dialogues on the capacity of the state.