In the latest salvo fired in the war of words between government and some members of the taxi industry, Transport Minister Sibusiso Ndebele vowed on Thursday that Johannesburg’s Rea Vaya Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system would start operations on Monday, August 31.

Cabinet spokesperson Themba Maseko also noted that threats of violence and actual violent conduct were viewed in a “very serious light”, warning that law enforcement agencies would not hesitate to take strong action.

The implementation of the R1,6-billion, phase 1A of the system had already been delayed. It was initially set to be operational by June 14, before the start of the FIFA Confederations Cup, but some taxi drivers and operators protested successfully against its implementation.

Tshwane, Port Elizabeth and Cape Town were all planning systems similar to Johannesburg’s BRT operations. Rea Vaya was the furthest advanced, though.

The South African National Taxi Council (Santaco) had over the past days threatened government with a nationwide strike, in protest against the implementation of the first BRT system. (A similar strike in March, earlier this year, had turned violent.)

Santaco – not representative of the entire local taxi industry as its name would suggest – had voiced concerns that the taxi industry did not understand the BRT system, and that it wanted to play more of a part in the new public transport system.

Despite his strong words, Ndebele also made an effort on Thursday to placate the taxi industry.

He said that Cabinet had, at its Cape Town meeting on Wednesday, reaffirmed its commitment to implement the BRT system, promising that it would be done in partnership with all stakeholders, particularly the taxi industry.

“We met with the leadership of Santaco on Monday, and we agreed that there will be no strike, and that the launch of BRT operations in Johannesburg will go ahead with the participation of all stakeholders, including Santaco and local taxi operators.

“Through the recently announced National Joint Working Group (NJWG) on public transport, the taxi industry and government will work towards the development of a memorandum of agreement as well as a national empowerment framework for the taxi industry,” said Ndebele.

In the strongest showing yet by government against the taxi industry, Gauteng Premier Nomvula Mokonyane on Thursday also warned taxi operators not to disrupt the Johannesburg BRT system once it had started operations.

REA VAYA AND TAXI OPERATORS

Phase 1A of Rea Vaya would displace 575 taxis.

However, these operators were set to become part of a new BRT bus operating company.

Negotiations around the structure of such a company was still ongoing between the City of Johannesburg and the affected operators. Until this was concluded, Rea Vaya would be operated by an interim bus company, acting on behalf of the taxi operators, Johannesburg Mayor Amos Masondo said earlier this month.

Earlier this week, the Joburg Taxi Industry Negotiating Team for the Rea Vaya Phase 1A operations contract came out in support for the public transport system – “in principle”.

The team comprised members of the taxi industry in Johannesburg who had been mandated to represent taxi owners from nine taxi associations that would be affected  by the implementation of the BRT system.

The Greater Johannesburg Regional Taxi Council, the Top Six Taxi Organisation, the Gauteng Taxi Council and the Gauteng Structure of the National Taxi Alliance were also supporting the team.

However, taxi bodies United Taxi Association Forum, Santaco and the National Taxi Association were not in agreement with the Joburg Taxi Industry Negotiating Team.

BRT HAS STRONG SUPPORT – MINISTER

Ndebele also noted on Thursday that it was “encouraging that the majority of South Africans have thrown their weight behind government’s plans to provide safe, efficient and affordable public transport”.

This came as a growing number of organisations voiced their support for the BRT system.

As part of the NJWG process, organisations representing civil society, including the South African National Civic Organisation, the South African Commuters Organisation, South African Transport and Allied Workers Union, National Economic Development Labour Council, Gauteng Commuters Organisation, the South African Disability Alliance, and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) met on 22 August, and stated their support for the public transport system.

Ndebele said these organisations “categorically stated that they disagree with the threats made against the implementation of the BRT systems, as they understand the importance of the implementation of the BRT project and 2010 guarantees given by the country.”

He was referring to the transport requirements for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, and government’s commitment to provide an efficient system to effectively support the global sports event.

“As government, we remain committed to providing our citizens with safe, efficient and affordable public transport,” he added.

Rea Vaya will start trial runs on Sunday, August 30.

Commuters will have the opportunity to use the system free of charge on its first day of operations between 12:00 and 16:00.

The BRT system’s main routes will see specialised buses run in dedicated lanes, stopping at specially designed stations, located roughly every 750 m along the way.

The starter service to kick off on August 30 will run from Lakeview station, in Soweto, to Ellis Park station, also offering an inner-city complementary service. It will operate in two shifts, with limited off-peak services.

The full phase 1A, to be implemented by January 2010, will use expanded trunk and feeder routes, offering a three-shift operation with a three- to five-minute frequency during peak times, and 20 minutes during off-peak periods.