Thursday, January 21, 2010

Message from South Africa: How our public transport system compares with the rest of Mama Africa.

South African travel writer Sihle Khumalo knows African public transport intimately, but is more accustomed to his own private wheels in his home town of Jozi. He took time out recently to explore his own backyard by public transport, from Soweto to Sandton…

Having travelled by public transport in more than 10 other African countries, it was only natural that I explore my own backyard using taxis and the newly launched Bus Rapid Transport (BRT) System – better known as ReaVaya. Amongst other things I wanted to see how our public transport system compares with the rest of Mama Africa.

My plan was pretty straightforward: take ReaVaya from Soweto to the centre of Johannesburg and then a taxi to Sandton. On a Friday afternoon, a day before my trip, I decided to walk from my office – which is in downtown Johannesburg – to buy myself a ReaVaya ticket.

In Gandhi Square, at the Metrobus ticket kiosk, I was told by a gum-chewing lady that she only sold tickets for Metrobus and not ReaVaya.

‘Isn’t Metrobus and ReaVaya both own and managed by the Johannesburg Metro?’ I asked, while trying to hide my shock

‘My brother I said I only sell Metrobus tickets.’ Before I could interject, she continued: ‘If you want a ReaVaya ticket go to Commissioner Street.’

A bit peeved, I decided that I was going to buy the bus ticket in Soweto the following day.

On a sunny Saturday morning, armed with all the info I had gathered from the informative BRT website, my wife drove me to Soweto. On entering Soweto, I noticed that young trees had been planted (better late than never) along Chris Hani (former Old Potchefstroom) Road. Since it was already after 10am, we were caught in a non-ending funeral procession of cars heading for the cemetery. Sowetans just can’t wait to bury the dead, I concluded. After passing Maponya Mall, we turned right into Klipspruitvalley Road and voila, there it was, Emfuleni bus station.

I could not miss the red structure in an island separating the lanes that were running in the opposite direction. After jumping out of the car and waving goodbye to my family, I noticed that – although there was a pedestrian crossing – cars (especially taxis) were not slowing down to give me a right of way. It took a while, and only another funeral procession had past that it was it safe to cross – into the modern bus station.

A friendly young man wearing a ‘volunteer’ reflector vest showed me where to buy the ticket, which set me back five hundred cents. He also explained where, once my ticket had been checked, I must stand while waiting for the bus.

Within 10 minutes the bus arrived and, for a Saturday morning, I was surprised at the number of the people going to town. There were only a handful of empty seats. I sat next to Nana – a beautiful, fat black woman. She did not even wait for me to get comfortable in my seat. By the time we got to the next stop, approximately 5km down the road - right opposite Orlando Stadium - we were talking like long-lost friends who had just met: hitting high fives and laughing out loud.

The bus was clean and tidy and the seats were comfortable. Nana, in a tight black dress, explained that the red chairs were called priority chairs and reserved for pregnant women, disabled people and people carrying babies. I was still nodding, showing how impressed I was by the BRT, when our conversation was interrupted by the ticket inspector.

Once the formalities were over, Nana continued.

‘Taxi drivers are unhappy with BRT because most people are not using taxis anymore. The reason for that is besides cost – taxis charge R7.50 from Thokoza Park to town whereas BRT cost only R5.00 – the buses take half the time taken by taxis. On weekdays, I used to leave my place at 6am and now with BRT I leave my house an hour later and still make it to work on time. Ja this BRT has really hit the taxi owners hard. Maybe they should introduce a special fare or discounts on certain days.’

Before I could say anything, she beat me to it…‘Nowadays taxi drivers even allow passengers to eat in the taxis, something that they never ever allowed before the introduction of this BRT.’

Within half an hour, we were in town. I was already so impressed that I could not help but think that if I lived in Soweto I would definitely use my car to drive to the office in Main Street anymore. This is exactly what South Africans have been waiting for – a safe, convenient and reasonably priced public transport system - I concluded as I jumped off at the corner of Rissik and Market roads.

The city centre has seen a revamp in the past couple of years, hence trendy eateries such as Ninos, Cappellos and Darkie Café have opened and seem to be doing well, with middle-class people – mostly black diamonds - enjoying their meals there. Instead of going to a restaurant, though, I opted to pop into the Carlton Centre.

After paying R8, I, together with some German tourists, took a lift to the 50th floor. This was the first time I was going to have an aerial view of Johannesburg from the Roof of Africa, as the 50th floor is known. It suddenly struck me that everyone visiting Jozi for the first time should take a turn here in order to get the proper orientation and perspective of South Africa’s biggest city. After absorbing an incredible view of the landmarks, it was time to head for Noord taxi rank, which made the headlines a while back when taxi drivers assaulted a woman for wearing a miniskirt.

I walked through Smal Street through to King George Road. As to be expected of most city centres in South Africa, there were loads of black people walking up and down and not even one white person in sight. Some people were having their hair plaited right on the busy pavements. Just when I thought I had seen it all, there was a shop – just before the taxi rank – which was selling uqanduqandu (an African version of Viagra, which apparently works wonders by keeping the middle leg, in a heavily dilated manner, pointing towards the magnetic North until sunrise). Maybe in 20 years time, when I am in my mid-50s, I might need it, I thought to myself.

I spent more than 30 minutes walking around in Noord taxi rank looking for Sandton-bound taxis. As a typical male, I do not ask for directions at the first sign of not finding what I am looking for. I walked around in circles looking at people boarding taxis heading not only to other South African cities and towns but also to neighbouring countries, such as Lesotho and Zimbabwe.

Eventually I decided to swallow my pride, but the first five people I asked had no clue where taxis heading for Sandton were parked. It was eventually a middle-aged man wearing a Jacob Zuma 100 % Zulu boy T-shirt who took me out of my misery. The taxis I was looking for were in Central Taxi Rank, which happened to be three blocks away.

Thus after crossing three sets of traffic lights I came across the MTN-branded Park Central, from where taxis travel to different suburbs. Quite honestly I had never heard about this taxi rank before.

In no time, thanks to the Sandton signboard, I saw which taxi I had to take. Against my good judgement I selected a back seat, which meant I had to squeeze myself between two young thin girls who spoke with a fake American accent. Although all three persons, excluding myself, were thin, it was a very tight squeeze.

As if this were not enough, when the taxi left the rank, it became apparent that we were about to encounter a new problem: the cost from the City Centre to Sandton is R9, but all of us were carrying only R20 notes. And as the driver was speeding along Twist Street, he was also trying to calculate the change due to the passengers. He was such a multi-skilled guy that, while doing all of this and changing lanes, he still had the time for a chat on his cellphone.

By the time the taxi, 25 minutes later, dropped me at the corner of Maude and West streets in Sandton, I had reached two conclusions…

Firstly, that as much as South Africa’s public transport system is better than that of other African countries, we still have a long road to cover before we can claim to have a world-class system.

And secondly, it is a no-brainer why Sowetans have deserted the taxis. Give me BRT anytime. Although with taxis you stand a good chance of being squeezed between two beautiful sexy things wearing miniskrits. That explained why, I thought further, there was a shop just outside Noord taxi rank that was selling uqanduqandu.

# # #

Thanks to the author and Mobility Magazine Africa for their permission to simultaneously publish this excellent article.

About the author:
Sihle Khumalo is the author of two books – Dark Continent My Black Arse, and Heart of Africa – which tell of his travels by public transport throughout Africa.

For more information on the Rea Vaya BRT, visit

And for more from World Streets on Rea Vaya:
* "Take a ride where the drivers aren’t rude to you" -
* "Transport Realities in South Africa: Slow, but maybe a start" -

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