It’s not yet seven in the morning and Mary Fitzgerald Square is already crisscrossed with commuters — schoolchildren, office workers, security guards and shop assistants — hurrying to get to their particular place in the world.  I wait outside Museum Africa to speak to Johannesburg city councillor Rehana Moosajee to talk about the new bus rapid transit system (BRT), the Rea Vaya, and the part it will play in how people like those moving across the square will get around the city.

Though the first phase of the route is up and running from Soweto’s Thokoza Park to Ellis Park, with a couple of circular routes around the inner city, it’s rollout has been mired in controversy.  The launch at the end of August was blighted by shootings, a failed court attempt to shut it down, a strike and then a go-slow by taxis.  An outspoken critic of the BRT and the deputy president of the South African National Taxi Council (Santaco), Mthuthuzeli Molefe, was also killed that week, shot six times outside his home; authorities are adamant the killing had nothing to do with the BRT, but the investigation into his death continues.

As the most public figure behind the negotiations, Moosajee has had to grow accustomed to two imposing men in black suits shadowing her wherever she goes. But, she says, since the launch things have quietened down — even if the project has seen more than a few hitches.

The Phase 1A route is only partially up and running and the contract governing the bus operating company on the route, which will be owned and run by affected taxi operators, is still being ironed out. In its place is an interim special purpose vehicle (SPV) that will run the system until the official operating company is set up; the starter service is running on 40 buses rather than the 143 initially intended.

While demand on the trunk route from Soweto to town has been good, demand on the CBD circle route has been insufficient, partly because ticket vendors have been afraid to advertise sales — allegedly due to intimidation from taxi drivers. Feeder services into the main routes are also not running yet.  Transformation costs have escalated, including the impact the BRT will have on the broader value chain of the taxi industry and people working working as queue marshals and vendors. Negotiations with the industry are focused on details like what rate per kilometre the city will pay to the operating company and how it will compensate affected operators for the loss of income experienced because of the BRT.

The total cost — which doesn’t include extras like added security and ongoing negotiations — is estimated to be about R2-billion. But Moosajee would not comment on the cost overruns.