Scary stories from a lovely place
Since Sunday Johannesburg has been sitting on a bit of a knife’s edge as we waited for a taxi strike to erupt into violence. The reason for the strike? The launch of Johannesburg’s new, and decidedly neat, transport system, Rea Vaya, meaning ‘We are going’ or the BRT (Bus Rapid Transit).
The reason for the potential violence? The last taxi strike was in March. Many people were thrown off taxis by angry drivers, buses were attacked, motorists were forced to drive at 10km/h along the highway behind a convoy of protesting taxi’s, people were caught in the cross fire between police and taxi drivers and the city’s economy came to a standstill as most of Jozi’s population couldn’t get to work.
So far the beginning of the BRT has been peaceful, despite unsubstantiated claims that drivers were pushing people out of their taxis in the early morning rush hour. I, for one, have been impressed with this strike. Instead of waving shambuck’s, blocking motorways and shooting bus drivers the taxi drivers simply refused to go to work on Monday. The result was many people enjoyed the BRT for part of their journey, but were then forced to return home as there was no taxi to take them the rest of the way. They have proved that Jozi’s transport system does indeed need them.
Sunday at 12h30 marked the official launch of the BRT with an opening ceremony in a marquee at the Smit St BRT stop in downtown Jozi. I was there. It took a fair bit of charm to persuade my superb, but cautious, husband that we should go and check it out. After driving and walking past rows and rows of Metro Police and SAPS cars and officers we found ourselves observing the official proceedings surrounded by many media and government representatives. Curiously everyone had access passes but us, but we weren’t stopped. We are, after all, friendly looking, and white.
After speeches, singing and an official opening, the VVIP’s, VIP’s, Media and then us were escorted, in that order, to the bus station for the inaugural ride. We hung back, so as not to arouse suspicion. As we watched, enjoying the Spring sunshine, we were bemused to see others had defied security like us. There were some guys selling ubiquitous items like lights to be used during power outages and head scarves. And of course there were a few irate taxi drivers who had broken through the tight lines of security. They were escorted away after plenty of shouting and arm waving. After much photo taking of the VIP’s on the first bus, it pulled very smoothly away from the station, and Rea Vaya was under way. Following closely behind was a mini-bus full of police decked out in riot gear, helmets, shields and brandishing enormous rifles. I couldn’t help gripping Stephen’s arm a little tighter as they went past.
Just 20 metres away from the shiny, new BRT stop, behind a wire fence, is a fairly unofficial looking taxi rank. As we all fussed over the departure of the inaugural bus, taxi drivers were watching, while others prepared a delicious smelling braai and some kicked a flat soccer ball around. Their main complaint is that the BRT will take away their revenue and they won’t be able to feed their families. I couldn’t help feeling somewhat sorry for them. In Jozi, taxi drivers have probably the worst reputation of anyone, besides the Metro Police. And, when it comes down to it, their beat up kombi’s are no match for the polished new BRT. But I wonder if each BRT that drives will be followed by the mini-bus complete with rifled soldiers? I doubt it.