To understand the current fight over Johannesburg’s bus rapid transit (BRT) system, go back three years, to mid-2006. Picture a boxing ring. There are two regional taxi associations in the ring. One is Top Six Taxi Management, the other the Greater Johannesburg Regional Taxi Council.

Rehana Moosajee, the city’s member of the mayoral committee for transport, enters the ring. She meets both associations separately. Being aligned to different national associations — the National Taxi Alliance in the case of Top Six and the government-recognised South African National Taxi Council (Santaco) in the case of the other — they will not even sit together in a meeting. Still, both turn their fists towards her. They are bitter about the introduction of city-run Metrobus services to Soweto. Moosajee gets an ultimatum: pull Metrobus out or else. In another corner of the ring, private bus operator Putco is also punching Metrobus for its move into Soweto.

At about the same time, a US consultant introduces Moosajee to BRT systems, tailor- made buses that run along dedicated lanes in the middle of existing roads. Bogota in Colombia and Guayaquil in Ecuador have them.

When she next meets the taxi representatives, Moosajee ducks the blows and posits instead the solution of a BRT, a system owned and run by taxi operators. It requires taxi operators to swap their vehicles on affected routes for a stake in a company that operates the bus system. In August 2006, she leads a tour to South America to look at how it works elsewhere. Members of the two taxi associations, as well as Putco and Metrobus, come along. They agree that something needs to be done to reduce congestion on the city’s roads and that this may be the answer.

From that point on, all five interests — Moosajee, the two associations, Putco and Metrobus — start facing in the same direction. No taxi group commits to joining the BRT (none has, in fact, to this day; publicly they say they are still gathering information) but the fists are lowered and talking begins through a steering committee of the two regional taxi associations. In 2006, the city council approves a plan to build Johannesburg’s BRT.

It is worth pointing out here the legitimate fears held by the taxi industry, which is responsible for a third of all daily trips made in Johannesburg alone. The industry grew out of nothing to transport SA’s black labour force. It is largely unregulated, but survives without subsidy, unlike buses and trains. This informal backbone of the economy extends into levels of livelihood largely unrecognised. Any taxi station is surrounded by spare-parts sellers and mechanics, hawkers, “cooking mamas” who sell food , vehicle washers and queue marshals. While taxi drivers can be as aggressive on the road as they are in this allegory, they are part of a wider economy whose members are fearful how they will fare in the new order.

Fast-forward two years, to the middle of last year. The rest of the taxi industry is getting nervous. The shouts from the crowd surrounding the ring are growing louder and angrier. Even though Johannesburg’s mandate is limited to taxis affected by the roll-out of Rea Vaya, as the local system is called, the madding crowd of operators is alarmed at the signs of something new taking shape. The roar rises.

While BRT presents a sea-change to the taxi industry, it will not do away with it. Just four cities — Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban and Port Elizabeth — will have these bus systems running by 2012, and they will do away with at most 8000 vehicles. By 2020, four more city operations will take an additional 7000-10000 taxis off the road. The maximum 18000 represent less than 15% of the current national taxi fleet, Jeff Radebe said in one of his last speeches as transport minister.

And yet the introduction of BRT gives the government a perfect opportunity to restructure the taxi industry in a logical way. Minibus taxis should not operate in high-density areas. A bus carrying 60-plus is far more appropriate. Where taxis can play a useful role, says University of Johannesburg transport lecturer Vaughan Mostert, is in lower-density areas.

“Small vehicles — 15-to-20-seaters — do not belong in the high-density domain. ( They do belong) in the Lonehills, Lindens … the townhouse-type areas, where they could operate services frequently but feeding into the more high-capacity modes at the railway stations and on bus ways and on the roads,” Mostert says.

Fast-forward again, to March this year. The boxing now becomes WWF-style wrestling, as a 150kg body jumps from the corner post. The little-known United Taxi Association Forum (Utaf) says it does not know what BRT is and calls a day-long strike in Johannesburg on March 24 that brings all taxis to a halt. Its members threaten violence. In a January notice, an organisation spokesman warns taxi operators to come to an anti-BRT meeting at Jabulani Amphitheatre in Soweto or “squad men of other associations will deal with you”.

Punching back, the local Johannesburg BRT steering committee counters that three of Utaf’s member associations — Witwatersrand Taxi Association, Alexandra Taxi Association and Soweto Taxi Services — were part of a technical committee getting information on Rea Vaya but pulled out. Utaf wants to control the steering committee for itself, they say.

Then a nother heavyweight drops jumps into the ring. It is national body Santaco, stung by charges that it has not done enough to stand up for its members on the issue. Santaco suddenly becomes more anti-BRT than anyone. It demands a halt to all BRT work while the national government develops rules for all BRT projects that will represent the taxi industry.

Swinging around to face this latest enemy , the Johannesburg steering committee associations charge that Santaco is playing hardball because it wants as much as a 40% stake in all the so-called value-chain operations — the peripheral business opportunities arising from the BRTs such as station cleaning and maintenance, security and advertising.

On April 20, a new figure, president-in- waiting Jacob Zuma , strides into the ring. The crowds fall silent. Zuma calls for a halt on all BRT work, except infrastructure construction, until his new administration is in office.

Post election, the new transport minister, Sbu Ndebele, negotiates with all warring parties in a corner. Meanwhile, the two heavyweight wrestlers turn on each other. Utaf declares its intentions to become a national body to replace Santaco. The BRT has become such a motivating issue that the single-issue lobby group thinks it can establish itself as a full rival to the well-funded and organised Santaco.

At this point, the ring may seem too full to take anyone else, but no. Another character, gown emblazoned with “Parktown Association”, climbs over the ropes, genteel fists of steel aimed in Moosajee’s direction. This group is appealing against the proposed construction of the BRT through their suburb. The Parktonians are closely followed by the “Section Six Action Group”. The burghers of Houghton, Saxonwold, Killarney and other suburbs want to protect their property values and lifestyle. The BRT skirmish risks becoming a free-for-all.

BRT will happen. But when the final bell rings, who will be holding up their fist in victory? Will it be Santaco, flush with cash from the new businesses it controls and with little incentive to change things further? Or will it be the national commuting public, benefiting from an accessible, reliable and dignified public bus system in which the taxi industry — properly regulated and subsidised — offers a co-ordinated, supporting service? That will depend on the referees — Ndebele and his boss, Zuma. How they handle the current skirmish over control of the BRT’s value-chain will set a clear precedent.