Cool air is blowing through the heated debate over Johannesburg’s bus rapid transit (BRT) system. After the government’s green light last month for the project, the city and its allies are getting on with the roll-out next month and the naysayers are talking in muted tones.

The city, emboldened by Transport Minister Sbu Ndebele’s blessing on June 11 for the roll-out of an initial 25km stretch , will begin operations by August 30 after the planned launch last month and use of the system during the Confederations Cup had been stymied by taxi industry resistance. It is now recruiting workers from the industry.

“There’s quite an extensive organogram of people required to do everything from monitoring the control centre to on-ground inspections .. . there could be space to say there could be (jobs) … that can be suitable to the industry. We could re-skill people,” says member of the mayoral committee for transport Rehana Moosajee.

This week the steering and technical committees representing associations affected by “phase IA” will call a meeting, says steering committee member Eric Motshwane.

“It’s crunch time now. People have made their individual decisions and organisations have their different views,” he says. “It’s for members to put their foot down and say, ‘We’re going left or right’.”

At a taxi summit last month, Ndebele announced the formation of a national working group representing all spheres of government and different members of the industry to discuss how BRT systems will be implemented across the country as well as a raft of other issues .

“We have now entered a phase that is not going to be characterised by conflict,” Ndebele said in his budget vote speech on Friday.

Creation of the working group, due to make an initial report next month, has taken much of the violent rhetoric out of the BRT debate. The South African National Taxi Council (Santaco), which beat one of the loudest anti-bus system drums, is a key player in the working group.

Even the United Taxi Association Forum (Utaf), which sprang from nowhere to organise a paralysing strike of taxis in March, is speaking in more measured tones. Last week it stressed its informal nature.

“It’s a forum,” spokesman Ralph Jones said. “A forum can disband at any time. But if there’s any need for us to register Utaf as a structure, we’ll register. At this point, we’ll still exhaust the structures in place. If we see things don’t go according to plan, we’ll register.”

The city plans to extend next month’s roll-out to a total of 86km in time for the 2010 Soccer World Cup .

“We are getting to the point where we’re saying these things are getting more and more real. The industry needs to understand that from the government side things are moving and we hope the industry will move with the same level of urgency,” Moosajee says.

But opposition remains . An SMS circulating last week invited taxi owners to a meeting “that will teach u to compete against the possible implementation of BRT”. The workshop by Fosters Toyota, an Eldorado Park-based retailer of minibus vans, offers “industry experts teaching u how to be profitable in ur taxi busines” (sic).

The Foster family, which sells about 600 minibus taxis a year, has long been opposing the Rea Vaya plans, Motshwane says.

“The writing is on the wall. The Fosters are now exposed. They have been hiding behind Utaf for a long time. They are just an outlet that is selling taxis, but now they have the audacity to call the industry to an … anti-BRT workshop.”

But Edwin Foster, a director of the dealership and a taxi owner, says he is not anti-BRT, and neither was this week’s workshop intended to be .

“It is a workshop to equip (taxi owners) with the business skills to increase their efficiency. We’ll be teaching them to use their combined buying power to get the necessary resources — vehicles, parts, to carve out new deals,” Foster says.

BRT “will no doubt be biting into profits and viability and encourage them to maintain a high standard of vehicles to please the customers they will have to fight for in the future”.

Foster, a member of Jones’ Eldorado Park-based taxi association — the Johannesburg Southern Suburbs Transport Services — says his company does not fund Utaf.

“We certainly agree on certain issues that Utaf raises. We certainly admire the way they’re standing up to (the city) . By the same token we’re business people. We don’t get involved in taxi politics. We don’t side with Utaf only from a business point of view and a political point of view.”