A Bus System Reopens Rifts in South Africa

Since the days of apartheid, when blacks were required to live in distant townships like this, Susan Hanong, a 67-year-old maid, has commuted to the wealthy northern suburbs of Johannesburg, one of the spectral figures trudging through darkened streets on long trips to wash white people’s clothes and mind their children.

But at dawn recently, after walking through Soweto to the sounds of roosters crowing and her sandals slapping against her feet, Mrs. Hanong beheld a vision of urbanity: a stylish, new high-tech bus station.
As the doors of a gaily colored bus closed behind her, she claimed a front-row seat reserved for the elderly and settled in for a smooth, tranquil ride, so different from her usual experience on careering, jam-packed minibus taxis.

“These people on taxis, they shout at us,” she said. “They say, ‘Granny, just move!’ They talk funny to the people. On the bus, no one can shout at you, you see.”

South Africa has erased apartheid from its statute books, but the racist schemes of white minority rule remain engraved on the landscape in an extreme form of residential segregation.

Millions of blacks still live in townships far from centers of commerce and employment.

Those with jobs, like Mrs. Hanong, must endure commutes that devour their time and meager incomes, while legions of jobless people are isolated from opportunity.

The new Bus Rapid Transit systems planned for South Africa’s major cities in recent years have promised to ease those hardships by providing fast, affordable, dignified travel on bus lanes cleared of other vehicles.

Prodded by a national commitment to improve public transportation for soccer’s 2010 World Cup, Johannesburg is carrying out the nation’s most ambitious program.

The city predic ted that buses would be rolling from Soweto, where a quarter of the city’s four million residents live, to Sandton, the region’s commercial and financial hub, by June.

But its bus project is falling short of that goal and has also become a reminder of just how challenging it is for South Africa to transcend its scarred history.

Beyond the usual logistical delays and a recession-related slowdown in financing, the project has confronted resistance from both suburbanites in what were once exclusively white enclaves and from some in the black-owned minibus taxi industry that sprang up during apartheid.

Rehana Moosajee, the City Council member who leads Johannesburg’s Transportation Department, ruefully acknowledged that the buses would not reach Sandton before the current city administration’s term expired next year, and she offered no certain prediction about when they would make it there.

The city’s first challenge was to win over the formidable minibus taxi industry, which moves 14 million people daily in a nation of 49 million, far more than the bus and rail systems combined.

It is perhaps the country’s greatest success story of black entrepreneurship, though with a history of ruthless violence.

Experts estimate that hundreds, if not thousands, of people have died in “taxi wars” to control routes.

After the bus line began running five months ago, along a 16-mile route from Soweto to the central business district, a bus was fired on and a passenger and a policewoman on it were hit.

Gunmen shot at the home of Mrs. Moosajee, hitting her security guard in the neck.

And Vananda Khumalo, a taxi industry official and advocate for a deal with the city, was killed.

There have been no arrests, Mrs. Moosajee said.

The city has also faced steely opposition from suburbanites that some officials describe as a classic case of not-in-my-backyard resistance.

At a packed meeting in November 2008, residents from the strand of stately, still mostly white communities along the heavily traveled Oxford Road shouted down city officials who were trying to describe proposed bus routes, including one that would use two of Oxford Road’s four lanes for buses.

Source: www.nytimes.co.za, 20100222

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