|There were Nyalas. There was a water cannon. There were even the scary-looking police in black helmets with vests labelled “Intervention”, loaded down with ammunition and walking around with big guns. Woe betide any foolish taxi operator who tried to disrupt yesterdayâ€™s Rea Vaya launch.
The country’s first bus rapid transit (BRT) service took its first official breath yesterday in a big puff of smoke. Everyone said nice things about it. Johannesburg mayor Amos Masondo called it “a historic day”. Gauteng Premier Nomvula Mokonyane said it was an opening to “even bigger things”.
A few even had a go at the would-be spoilers. Transport Minister Sibusiso Ndebele repeated a jibe he made during last weekâ€™s talks with leaders of the South African National Taxi Council (Santaco), who called a nationwide strike to disrupt the process.
â€œI was surprised that it was only myself (in the meeting) who had not been to Bogota or Brazilâ€¦. All of them had gone to see where it operates. I said to them: â€˜There isnâ€™t a way in which you can still say â€˜I support BRT but I donâ€™t understand it!â€™ â€
Some were less diplomatic.
â€œSome of our colleagues, especially the leaders, they are not leading the people, they are leading their pockets,â€ said Sipho Mntambo, a member of the taxi steering committee negotiating with the City of Johannesburg.
Others were downright angry.
â€œI want to tell the SG (secretary- general) of Santaco, Mr (Philip) Taaibosch, that once one commuter dies this time, we are going to take this situation back to â€™76.â€¦ If they donâ€™t want to be part of the transformation of public transport, they must stand aside,â€ said Stephen Sangweni, president of the South African Commuters Organisation. Taaibosch was, perhaps unsurprisingly, not present.
Yesterdayâ€™s launch was an opportunity to get a first-hand experience of what Rea Vaya is like to use.
For half an hour, the gleaming new Westgate station, just south of Anderson Street in central Johannesburg, became a mass of excited VIPs and their minders, representatives of disabled-rights organisations, family members and journalists terrified that they would not get to see the action.
The rush to get on the buses, see who was riding on which bus and get photos of the whole event unleashed a brief madness on the platform.
â€œWe donâ€™t need the taxi industry to create chaos â€” we can do it ourselves,â€ one wag next to me observed.
Finally we are on. And we take off, south towards Booysens. The first discovery is how hot the Gran Viale are.
â€œPlease can you open your windows!â€ someone cries from the back. They are already open as far as they can go, but that is not much.
We pick up pace and the scenery becomes a blur of passing signs: Rileyâ€™s Chicken, Welitaâ€™s Spraypainters & Panel Beating. Through Booysens, on to the Soweto Highway. Kleenrite Chemicals shoots past.
As we pass Soccer City, a Toyota Hiace level-pegs us. The driver stares. Why is he not overtaking? Then I realise â€” we have a Gauteng traffic police car in front of us and a Johannesburg municipal police department car behind; both with lights flashing.
We drive over the N1 and into Soweto. Children wave. Left, down Mooki Street. Past Orlando Stadium, past Boomtown Station. Right. A crowd of white-robed people pray in a distant veld. Behind them an Absa- branded hot-air balloon floats.
Left into Klipspruit Valley Road, where Rea Vaya shares the lanes with ordinary traffic â€” the adjacent wetlands delayed road-widening. Down, past long, grim rows of hostels.
Right into Chris Hani, the road formerly known as Old Potch. Down to Thokoza Park, with neatly manicured lawns just beyond Regina Mundi church. We get out at the station and crowd around the politicians.
Ndebele speaks: â€œRea Vaya is just the beginning. A very good beginning.â€
It is hard to disagree.