In its resistance to the implementation of the bus rapid transit (BRT) system, the minibus taxi industry is providing a formidable test of President Jacob Zuma ’s fabled reconciliatory skills and of his political mettle more generally.

What is emerging is a fascinating governance case study with profound lessons for the future that go beyond the short-term question of whether the Zuma administration will allow itself to be held to ransom by factions within the minibus taxi industry.

Taking a step back from the current impasse and the inevitably vexed negotiations that are continuing, fundamental questions about governance need to be asked. Why, following a period of intensive consultation and policy and legislative review between 1995 and 2000, resulting in a 20-year vision within which public transport is prioritised, has so little concrete progress been made since then in meeting stated objectives?

In the South African context, where minibus taxis represent the largest component of the urban public transport system (and the only one that operates without government subsidies), the absence of an effective and consistent engagement strategy for the sector has unsurprisingly proven to be a major obstacle.

What’s more, a conspicuous lack of engagement with civil society — for example, public transport user groups, community- based structures, nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) — has meant that a potential source of political support for public transport projects was not tapped. Although rather different in nature to the usual big business lobby, the minibus taxi industry is nonetheless a private interest group whose agenda risks eclipsing the public good; its resistance to change-threatening initiatives designed to meet the needs of future generations.

This represents a deficiency of transitional management — of a properly planned “governance of transformation”.

At the August 5 meeting of the parliamentary transport portfolio committee on the BRT, to which were invited — for the first time — national representatives of the minibus taxi industry and of a commuter organisation, the Department of Transport acknowledged that it would have been better to hold an intensive consultation process rather than holding conferences and workshops, and that in future users/passengers would be included in the process through national structures such as the South African National Civics Organisation.

The portfolio committee chairwoman, African National Congress MP Ruth Bhengu, noted that the government alone could not transform public transport, and that the best way to arrive at a solution was to develop solutions with the people and that there should be similar engagements at local and provincial levels involving civil society.

This revised approach gives cause for optimism — provided, of course, it is based on a genuine commitment to participatory planning. In other words, a realisation that in order to be implementable, road-based public transport plans must be first negotiated with all key stakeholders to address legitimate conflicts of interest and a mediated consensus forged. It means moving away from the traditional top- down, “decide, announce, defend” approach in which the key objective of public participation is to achieve acquiescence. Not only has such an approach manifestly failed to achieve acceptance of plans by certain stakeholders, it has promoted distrust and active resistance.

Two central issues which the department will need to address when realigning its participation process are: first, how to create a mechanism that ensures that politically weaker but highly important stakeholders, such as the urban working poor, can hold the government to account; and second, the relative importance and focus on local- as opposed to national-level engagement.

Given that responsibility for passenger transport planning in the metropolitan areas rests — in principle at least — with municipal government, it stands to reason that stakeholder engagement should, likewise, be conducted principally at this level.

Just as the department sets a national policy framework within which municipal transport planning takes place, so too could it provide a frame of reference to guide local- level engagement. Although little information on municipal-level negotiations in Johannesburg and Cape Town is in the public domain, both cities have claimed that an agreement with directly affected taxi operators is close.

Given its highly fragmented ownership structure, contractual arrangements with the sector must, in any case, be concluded with the individual operators who own the vehicles and hold the operating permits.

Attention must also be given to strengthening local civil society structures, which lack the resources to effectively take part in the process, but without compromising their accountability to communities or their independence from government and party politics.

Participatory planning requires additional financial and human resources as well as longer time lines, but if properly undertaken should result in a consensus position that all key stakeholders can work towards. The risk of the process being captured or held hostage by narrow interest groups, particularly at provincial and national levels, where grassroots accountability is weaker, must be minimised. The role of NGOs and other civil society organisations as facilitators and monitors needs to be defined. Most critically, the government must be prepared to substantively modify certain programmes for such an approach to work.

This could be a pivotal dynamic of the transition from the Thabo Mbeki era to that of Zuma. If the latter is to succeed where the former failed, it will be because he and his administration have heeded the painful lesson that an over-centralised, autocratic style of government — and the failure to take public participation seriously — not only sidelines the interests of the poor majority but breeds destructive conflict, which in turn threatens to derail important long-term policy initiatives.

The previous administration failed to articulate a clear and compelling long-term vision able to achieve grassroots buy-in and mobilisation, which has allowed the narrow short-term interests of such groups as the taxi industry to dominate the national debate.

Governance of transformation, to be successful, must take place within a framework that ensures that the exigencies of the present are balanced against the needs of future generations.

– Van Rooij is project manager of the New Mobility Initiative, which falls under Idasa’s Economic Governance Programme, which is directed by Calland.

PUBLICATION: Business Day
AUTHOR: Jerome van Rooij and Richard Calland
DATED: 1st September 2009