Efficient public transport still eludes working-class citizens

THE card scanner on Johannesburg’s Rea Vaya bus rapid transit (BRT) system reads “insufficient balance”. The attendants say it’s malfunctioning but I cannot be let in; they need to be sure that my balance is sufficient. But my card cannot be checked at this station — the computers are offline.

I am instructed to verify my balance at the next station. After walking two blocks to get there, the computer needs to be restarted twice before my balance is revealed. I have R8.50 on my card — enough for my R5.50 trip to Braamfontein — but the cashier tells me anything less than R12.50 counts as an insufficient balance.

Now late, I’m left pining for the “old days” when a simple paper ticket could afford an effortless and timely ride on a Rea Vaya bus. Yet it is also a moment of lucidity: the Rea Vaya BRT has overplayed its technological hand, striking its own insufficient balance between world-class development and the present public transport challenges in SA.

As citizens of Johannesburg, there is some pride involved in noting the frequent and reliable Rea Vaya buses on major traffic routes. Arguably, using public transport belongs to a culture of working-class necessity in SA, and the BRT has undoubtedly made public transport more accessible.

More than a year ago, the Rea Vaya partnered with Absa to roll out the Smartcard system, whereby clients had to register for a chipped card that stored preloaded money. The pros were clear: the decrease in paper-ticket litter was instantly discernable and the card certainly allows for easier transfers between different routes.

The cons, however, are more elusive and far-reaching as they serve to perpetuate a culture of exclusion that seemingly haunts all of our public transport systems. For example, the Smartcard surreptitiously increases fares by charging 2.5%-3.5% of the amount every time you load money on the card. This is hardly in the interest of commuters, who now pay extra to bridge this virtual gap.

More frustrating, there is a lack of infrastructure to support a Smartcard system — machines, scanners and computers often malfunction and cause confusion and delays. It is not uncommon for commuters to assume the burden of a faulty scanner by being charged a penalty fee.

For those who use the BRT regularly, the electronic signs are a point of humour as they never display the correct arrival times and station names. And so commuters find themselves encumbered by first-world technology rather than it making life more efficient or affordable.

Overall, the Rea Vaya BRT marks the disjuncture when first-world structures are brought into Africa.

Considering that previously disadvantaged citizens are still left at the mercy of public transport, these technological upgrades reiterate apartheid-based forms of exclusion. What a poorly implemented technological scheme forces desperate commuters into is a constitution of patience.

Under ordinary circumstances, patience is an admirable quality, but here it reinforces a history in which the African subject must wait to be let in (to the back door of a white home, to post-apartheid socioeconomic structures, to the first world), which is also to suggest that the present system fails to meet the more immediate needs of its citizens.

On the contrary, first-world expectations of public transport are more easily met on the Gautrain. All of the electronic signs work and trains run on time. The average commuters are, however, middle-to upper-class students and working professionals travelling between the more affluent north and the central business district.

Yet the Gautrain is also set apart by its price, implying that efficient public transport is available, but continues to elude working-class citizens.

A culture of exclusion expresses itself differently in other arenas: newcomers to the minibus taxi often complain about the inaccessibility of the network system and the resistance they feel when using taxis.

The taxi industry has become hardened by its own history of exclusion; during apartheid, it sought to provide informal public transport for black citizens who had none. It was, literally, a transport system at the margins — a defiant symbol of resistance. Today, reaching speeds to match the Gautrain, the taxi still stands as an audacious pronouncement of itself — it remains resistant to the law and attempts at formalisation. As a result, a lot of effort and energy needs to go into investigating routes and it is preferable to have access to a local African language when doing so, as commuters and drivers are sometimes piqued by the slightest inference of threat.

While one could read this romantically, it more problematically speaks of a culture of mistrust that has not been sufficiently allayed with time. We have a mode of public transport that continues to read itself as exclusive and so resists governmental infrastructure, despite the potential to offer greater safety and security for drivers and passengers.

As one encounters a culture of exclusion on each of these modes of public transport, we are left to assume that the streets are free and open to all.

Yet writers such as Ivan Vladislavic and Mark Gevisser have long since remarked that walking in Johannesburg is a tenacious and, at times, impossible act. In their writing, they lament the inability to perambulate the streets of Johannesburg in a manner that is inconspicuous, safe and convenient. Seemingly, their insights follow on from Tant Sannie’s earlier declaration in The Story of an African Farm, that “men who walk are thieves, lairs, murderers, Rome’s priests, seducers”. Olive Schreiner is one of the first to highlight how walking is positioned in the white imagination: it is an act that inspires apprehension and so warrants suspicion in the South African context, setting us apart from 19th-century Europeans who took to the streets in droves. Hence, white writing has continued to suffer the lack of a European city, designed with parks and pedestrian walkways, populated by a class that does not evoke a sense of danger or uncertainty.

In contemporary times, there still exists the commonplace understanding that the streets are an unsuitable site for white, middle-and upper-middle class activity. Yet this zone of myopia and exclusion has allowed for a distinctly different culture to emerge on the streets of Johannesburg. Daily, the street are brimming with working-class industriousness. Navigating the city’s dangers is part of its fare; walkers revel in the particular freedom it provides. Here exists a space that is largely free from white and upper-class surveillance and walkers are protective over the city’s pedestrian space.

As a case in point, I was out walking the other day and encountered a fairly attractive man. Marvelling in the pleasure of what the streets can offer, I lingered to catch another look. Feeling the glare of my gaze, he turned around, but only to reveal an expression of great irritation.

My presence could only be interpreted as bothersome — even burdensome. I was less of a walking participant and more of a nuisance in the space. Clearly, the walking streets have worked out their own culture of exclusion, and it resents its possible reappropriation for facile, middle-class recreation.

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