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A long wait – If time permits

Reflections on the transport department’s public transport plan.

I’m one of those people who travel alone in a car to and from work each day. The one-way trip can take 10 minutes. At peak time it used to take up to 25 minutes. It is now taking 50 minutes, if I’m lucky. Each trip leaves me in a state of high tension. Passing over myself, I damn each of the multitude of other empty cars that contribute to my twice daily torment.

The hell of private transport fires my prayers for a rational, integrated public transport system that is at once safe, frequent, affordable and user- and planet-friendly.
It was thus with the delight of a starving person that I gobbled down a recent report to Parliament by the Department of Transport (DoT). The 61-paged document, ‘Integrated Public Transport Plan’, comes with the enticing sub-title of ‘Transforming the System.’ Transforming the system! Not a moment too soon, I enthused. Alas, the Report left me screaming for an immediate enema.
The Report starts with a deceptively tasty first course. It begins with a clear statement of where we need to be

‘South Africa is required to develop public transport networks that can be used by everyone in the country.’

It then provides a bold assessment of where we actually are now. In its words, the present is ‘Far from IDEAL’, which it then proceeds to detail over the next seven pages.
With this as the tasty first course, the remainder of the Report covers what is actually being done to achieve the ‘transforming of the system’, the sub-heading that so wetted my appetite. But, now, there is a sudden and marked change. It is as though the original chef has been fired. The meal that began with such culinary promise becomes unpalatable.

In fairness to the Report, there were signals forewarning that the first course was probably a taster to tease. Such was my desire for the ‘transformation’ of public transport, however, that I missed them. The most telling of these signs was the report’s utter lack of urgency. The Report begins with the ‘challenges’ of the National Household Transport Survey of – 2003. The Report then connects with the Public Transport Strategy of — 2007. The Report to Parliament was thus 9 years in the making. Yet nothing was said about this long delay. There was neither an apology nor any attempt to appease the parliamentarians with the suggestion that the Report merits the very long wait. To the contrary, the Report informs Parliament that there is no ‘quick fix’ to transforming public transport. Indeed, it is so unfazed by time that it openly alerts the MPs to a further delay to ‘at least’ 2025 before the plan can have any chance of being achieved. 2025 means at best a 31 year delay before the transport provisions of the RDP are realised. (Those provisions bear re-reading, if only to remind ourselves of how revolutionary the RDP now seems.) Yet the DoT seems blissfully untroubled by time.

To be sure, it is as though the Report has been imprisoned in a time-trap, a neo-liberal time-warp. The neo-liberal shibboleths appears in the Report as untarnished in 2012 as they were, in 1996, when they were first formally adopted, via the government’s Growth, Employment and Redistribution document, as the main pillars of the government’s macroeconomic policies.

Cocooned within this timeless neo-liberalism, the Report is similarly oblivious of climate change, of the government’s climate change policies and of South Africa’s hosting of the world leaders who met in Durban, in December 2011, to confront the catastrophe of climate change. Road transport by monstrous lorries and trucks and millions of constantly bigger and heavier private cars are not only a major reason for global resource depletion but, in both their construction and propulsion, are one of the largest single causes of the deadly greenhouse gasses responsible for global warming.

The Report is not only trapped in time but, being securely isolated within its own tightly sealed silo, sees nothing of its incoherence with other government policies.
All this results in a report unable to conceive of public transport as anything other than a business opportunity (despite the public provision of public transport being the RDP’s guiding transport principle). The entire Report is predicated on the multiple forms of the privatised provision of integrated public transport.

‘Private sector’ means outsourcing, which in turn means corruption. These outcomes are no longer in dispute and were well known when the Report was presented to Parliament in November last year. Indeed, the Report alludes to probable corruption as the reason the National Treasury and the DoT stopped one of the metropolitan transport projects (Tshwane). The excessive use of and abuse by consultants was also well known. Consultants have nonetheless been central to all 11 of the transport projects covered by the Report. The Report itself is likely to have been prepared by a consultant.

Besides Tshwane, the Report details the projects at Cape Town, Johannesburg Nelson Mandela Bay, Rustenburg, Ethekwini, Buffalo City, Polokwane, Mbombella, Ekurhuleni and Msunduzi.
With or without corruption, it is clear that consultants have been lucratively paid. In (corruption-plagued) Polokwane, R120 million will have been spent by June this year on the planning and design phases alone.
‘Lucrative’ describes all government work. This is why losing tenderers are ready to pay what it takes for lucrative lawyers to challenge contract awards in court. In at least one case (Buffalo City), detailed designs and business planning was delayed for over a year by legal objections by a company denied a lucrative tender.

Whether because of corruption or the lucrative essence of government outsourcing, 9 of the 11 projects explicitly make their success dependent on the availability of funds. And rightly so, for the Public Transport Infrastructure & Systems grant covering all the projects is only R5 billion, whereas bids alone amount to R18 billion. Long live lucrative business!

Taxi-related delays have blighted a number of other projects, for taxis (or former taxi owners) are integral to all the projects, despite taxis having, at best, only a marginal role in any marginally rational integrated transport system. But taxis are an important business sector to people important to the government.

Common to most of the 11 progress reports is that pre-implementation planning is very incomplete. They haven’t even begun in Mangaung.

Consistent with the Report’s own most optimistic deadline of 2025, little – or, far from sufficient – actual progress has been made anywhere.
The same applies to jobs. All projects were required to estimate the number of jobs likely to be created. Six of the eleven weren’t able to do so because of insufficiently developed plans. The numbers given by those that did report are at once both probably inflated while, in reality, being unduly modest for they almost certainly all use the business model of labour efficiency. This model measures efficiency in terms of the least possible number of workers. In all probability, labour-intensive construction methods were not considered, leave alone used. Labour intensity as a contractual requirement similarly probably plays little to no part in the post-construction, permanent jobs numbers given. Job creation is indeed so incidental to the lucrative business opportunities available that one project (again Polokwane) makes no mention of jobs.

BEE, by contrast, is central to the effectively privatised ‘Agency’ responsible for passenger transport. Thus, ‘effective implementation’ of BEE is a primary goal of the rolling stock procurement programme, as the Report proudly declares.

The use of neo-liberal terminology should occasion no surprise in a document so thoroughly shaped by neo-liberal thinking. Hence, the users of public transport are not passengers but ‘customers’ and travelling is not an action or event but an ‘experience’.

Like jobs, the environment is of little moment. Despite its many aspects, there is only a single mention in the entire Report to anything in any way connected to the environment. Only the Johannesburg report makes mention of the carbon dioxide saved as a result of its Rea Vaya bus system [p.40]

The most shocking aspect of this shocking Report is not the Report itself but the parliamentary response to it. The DoT presented its report to Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on 6th November 2012. Based on the Minute of this meeting prepared by the invariably reliable Parliamentary Monitoring Group, the nearest thing to a critique came from one MP who drew attention to the Report’s exclusive urban focus! And that was it!

(20 March insertion). This lame response by parliament’s transport committee stands in the sharpest contrast to the Committees outraged response to a presentation by the DoT on Bee in the Road Freight sector on 11/3/13. According to the PMG summary of the meeting, Committee members were ‘disappointed’ by the presentation, while the Departments ‘lack of progress and vision’ was ‘viewed with dismay’. The Committee noted that nothing had been done about the ‘bribery and corruption’ that was ‘rife’. The Committee was so incensed that it required the DoT to do another presentation so that the Committee could ‘engage more thoroughly with the problem and work more intensively to find solutions’.
The ‘solutions’, of course, run directly counter to an integrated transport system that perforce prioritises getting freight off the roads and onto trains. The ‘solutions’ ensure the security of private road transport thereby additionally ignoring the whole issue of climate change.)

It seems as though a lot of us will have to be doing a lot of praying before a proper public transport system takes most trucks and most of us off the roads, for most of the time. But will climate change allow us the luxury of time?

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