14/04/2017 06:01 SAST | Updated 14/04/2017 10:46 SAST

The Bus Strike And The Burdensome Legacy Of Apartheid

Passenger bus services are a vital tool in breaking down the effects of apartheid spatial planning. When the service is interrupted, for the poorest, there is no plan B.


It takes two taxis and about R23 to get from the central areas of Soweto (Thokoza Park) to Auckland Park, where the Huffington Post offices are. It takes three minibus taxi trips and well over R30 if the commute begins in a part of the township that is further from the transport hubs. Add an extra 20 minutes each time a commuter must change taxis, and you will begin to understand why some people have to get up at 4:30am to be at work on time every day.

The Rea Vaya bus route that begins in Thokoza Park, goes north, right past our offices on Empire Road, all the way through to Park Station in the centre of Johannesburg and to the eastern parts of the city. This costs R12 for a one-way trip. (Even less for shorter trips.) It's one trip, and the buses arrive every 15 minutes during the week. The trip cuts out as much as 90 minutes from a one-way commute, every day.

This is the kind of difference the bus service makes to the life of a daily commuter. Thanks to the spatial arrangements of South African cities inherited from apartheid planners, the poorer people live on the outskirts of the commercial centres, and have the longest commutes.

Apartheid spatial planning is incredibly difficult to undo. "Racially segregated suburbs, buffer zones separating suburbs, monofunctional land use, a dispersed city characterised through low density urban sprawl, racially divided urban growth patterns, all led to a highly fragmented city. The urban realities contributing to current impacts on the dysfunctional structure of the South African city are therefore numerous," wrote Professor Ronnie Donaldson in 2001.

According to the National Traffic Survey conducted by Statistics South Africa, in 2013 the average black person spent 88 minutes every day travelling to work and back. This is double the commute of an American, according to researcher Andrew Kerr. White South Africans spent 54 minutes in traffic.

Considering the amount of time wasted in traffic, Kerr calculated that this effectively counted as a 40% decline in hourly wages for people who use a combination of transport modes (bus, train and taxi) to get to work.

The most popular idea for undoing the legacy of apartheid has been the creation of urban transport corridors, linking these disparate areas together, alongside the development of commercial and residential areas on the routes. The Corridors of Freedom project in Johannesburg is an excellent example of this. The development of the Rea Vaya bus routes is premised on this idea too.

The strike comes at an awkward time -- not only are commuters affected, but many people use public transport to get to various homes spread around the country for the Easter weekend.

There are countless examples of how bus routes have made a tremendous difference in the lives of people who otherwise must travel, but nothing quite drives the point home like a situation when they are suddenly unavailable. As is the case with the nationwide passenger bus strike, organised by the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), after a breakdown during wage negotiations.

The strike comes at an awkward time -- not only are commuters affected, but many people use public transport to get to various homes spread around the country for the Easter weekend.

The workers want a 12% wage increase, and have been deadlocked in negotiations since January. According to Numsa, the employers have offered 9 percent across the board wage increase, overtime pay for drivers, but only after 16 hours per shift, an increase of the night shift allowance by 10 percent and an increase 10 percent for cross border allowance.

The affected bus services are Gautrain, Putco, Rea Vaya, Mgqibelo, Mayibuye, Buscor, Megabus, Mega Express, Bojanala, Gauteng Coaches, Itereleng, Ipelegeng, Atamelang, Greyhound, Golden Arrow in the Western Cape and Autopax, operator of Translux and City-to-City.

There is an obvious interest from the perspective of Numsa's membership. However, the effect on the commuters -- too poor to afford private transport -- is unmissable. I understood the Soweto commuter dilemma from a first-person experience told to me by someone I see every day. The effect the strike will have on her pocket is immense. The difference in time and money is significant for someone in her wage bracket.

This is the unfortunate, and burdensome, legacy of apartheid. The poor still live on the edges of our cities; economic activity still mostly happens in the centres of cities. The commute from Parkhurst to Rosebank is negligible, by car. (Or from Byranston to Sandton. Vredehoek to the Cape Town City bowl. Pick an affluent suburb and business centre of your choice.) That is, in comparison to someone who lives in Kayelitsha and works in Cape Town. Or indeed, lives in Soweto and works in Auckland Park.

Without a plan B, the poor cannot escape the evil designs of the apartheid spatial planners in these times.