|When new transport minister S’bu Ndebele was called in to see President Jacob Zuma at about 1.30am last Sunday, his boss outlined two immediate tasks for him.
The first: get the Bus Rapid Transport system up and running in time for the Confederations Cup and the 2010 World Cup by getting the taxi associations on board and building a decent relationship with them.
The second: replicate the Zibambele model â€” through which KwaZulu-Natal communities are paid to build and maintain roads in their areas â€” around the country and get emerging contractors to build roads as a means of labour-intensive job creation.
Both tasks are tough demands. Large sections of the taxi industry are at loggerheads with the government over a lack of consultation about BRT, which is aimed at creating a one-ticket mass transport system. They have also clashed over the taxi recapitalisation process, which will eventually replace minibus taxis with buses. At present, 80% of the 100000 taxis to be scrapped are still on the road.
Zuma met the taxi organisations on the eve of the April 22 elections after they threatened to disrupt the poll and both soccer spectacles .
Although the Zibambele and emerging-contractor programmes have been a massive success in KwaZulu- Natal, where Ndebele served as transport MEC for 10 years after 1994, co-ordinating their roll-out in nine provinces and national road projects will be a bureaucratic nightmare. The job will be made even harder by the fact that 40% of the top posts in the Department of Transport have not been filled. The mass of ineffective public entities, from the Road Accident Fund to the Railway Safety Regulator, also require urgent intervention if they are to function properly.
Zuma obviously believes Ndebele has what it takes to do the job. Why else would he have appointed the man who started the debate in favour of a third term for Thabo Mbeki as ANC president to a portfolio central to the success and modernisation of the South African economy?
In the fallout after Zumaâ€™s axing by Mbeki in June 2005, Ndebele was subjected to a torrid two years in the ANC. Many observers believed his political career was over, but his refusal to abandon the party, coupled with his significant skills in transport and governance, held sway.
Within hours of being sworn in on Monday, Ndebele was calling taxi bosses, trying to get them to buy into the BRT system. But in an interview on Friday, he was unwilling to go into the details of his plans before receiving the formal handover report from his predecessor, Jeff Radebe.
Ndebele told the Sunday Times he believed the crux of the problem was the belief by taxi bosses that the new system was not in their interest and that they had been left out in the cold.
He has prioritised sorting out the BRT system in the host cities for the Confederations Cup before taking on the issues of World Cup readiness and taxi recapitalisation.
â€œWe are setting up the meetings now and they are going to happen next week,â€ he said.
â€œWe will also be talking to the host cities to identify the problems and issues around transport matters. In terms of 2010 and the Confederations Cup, the problems are not with the stadiums and readiness. We know that will all work. The problem we need to sort out is getting people to and from the stadiums. â€
Ndebele said although some taxi associations opposed the BRT system, many were in favour of it. The job now was to consult with those who opposed the system.
â€œWe are going to sit and explain that we are a new government, we are continuing with BRT, (so) what do you see as your role in it,â€ he said.
â€œWe will do all the consultation that needs to be completed.â€
Ndebele said the key to getting taxi bosses on board was to convince them that the BRT system would take them from the periphery into the â€œmainstream of the economyâ€.
â€œI have always understood that the taxi industry is the ready entry point for black people to enter the economy. The industry needs to understand that BRT is getting them into the centre of the economy. The cornerstone of the South African economy is transport. They cannot go wrong there,â€ he said.
Ndebele is also keenly aware of the poor state of the RAF, describing its inability to help accident victims as â€œcutting into the core of our humanityâ€.
â€œPeople who are accident victims donâ€™t even know they are entitled to something. This is not right. The RAF needs to be jacked up and made more empathetic to victims, for them to know what they are entitled to.â€
Ndebele describes the scope of the work in his department, with a budget of R25-billion (it was only R4-billion five years ago) as â€œactually quite frighteningâ€.
â€œThe president is clearly not going to accept failure and this ministry is not going to be associated with any failure. We cannot.â€