Mtutuzeli Tokota is frustrated. He is frustrated with the local taxi industry.

“They are pushing. They are militant. You can’t be militant on this,” he says.

His frustration is understandable. Tokota, Nelson Mandela Bay’s member of the mayoral committee – a city-level minister – for infrastructure, engineering and energy, is in charge of overcoming taxi opposition to implementing the planned bus rapid transit (BRT) system.

As with efforts under way in Johannesburg and Cape Town, this version will move commuters off taxis on to buses running along dedicated lanes.

Like its counterparts elsewhere in the country, in Port Elizabeth taxi operators will own the new system. The guiding idea is that the informal taxi business will evolve to a formalised transport system that offers passengers greater safety, cheaper fares and resolves the growing congestion in the port city’s centre.

However, just as in Johannesburg and Cape Town, it is a fight every step of the way. Tokota’s task became harder late last year when a palace coup in the local taxi industry kicked out the committee of elected representatives with whom the city had been negotiating and replaced them with newcomers.

Violent protests that started in October saw taxi drivers pull passengers out of private cars and buses, assault people not supporting the strike and threaten workers building infrastructure for the rapid bus system. The protesters, from the South African Communist Party, African Transport and Allied Workers’ Union and some taxi associations, said the negotiators did not have their welfare at heart.

“They were no longer representing our interests other than their personal interests,” says Melekile Hani, chairman of the Port Elizabeth and District Taxi Association.

By the end of December, the disaffected elements had achieved their goal. The Nelson Mandela Bay Public Transport Forum, as the group of rebels called themselves, took over the negotiating role with the city.

While anti-BRT protests have disrupted other cities, in Port Elizabeth they have claimed lives. In separate incidents, one former task team member was shot dead and another was shot and injured. Police are investigating.

The task team was replaced with a steering committee that included local members of the African National Congress -led tripartite alliance and much of the work started all over again.

“All those people we were negotiating with and going towards a certain goal were deposed by the taxi associations that came in,” Tokota says. “They’ve set us back dramatically. In the time wasted, we could have achieved a lot.”

As a result, the city will not have its system up and running by the time of the Soccer World Cup next June. This is arguably worse than in Johannesburg, which missed out on the chance to road-test its Rea Vaya BRT during the Confederations Cup due to taxi opposition.

“We needed to achieve the infrastructure implementation plan by 2010, but by way of these battles, we cannot,” Tokota says.

The BRT network, which will cover five areas of the Port Elizabeth-Uitenhage region and make about 450000 passenger trips a day, was due for completion by the end of the year, but will not be ready.

Instead, to meet its host-city commitments to transport visitors around town, the Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality will put in an ad hoc system moving people between the stadium, airport and hotels. When that is over, they will get back to working on the BRT.

“It is only after 2010 that we will be able to continue.”

The forum does not oppose the introduction of a BRT system as such, but it does want to slow implementation to a pace that will give the taxi industry time to adjust to the necessary changes, says Hani.

“We are not against the development brought about by government, but we are against the manner they are rolling out this project, the speed.”

But Tokota does not see it that way. “Taxis want to take control of the whole process. They want to take over, they want to dictate terms.”

In public, at least, the two positions are far apart. The city says there are about 2000 taxis in the city that will need to be considered when implementing the BRT. Hani says the number is between 6000 and 7000.

It may be posturing, but Hani says the forum is not even ready to negotiate the city’s plans yet.

“We are not negotiating for the implementation of the BRT,” he says. “We have not started there. We are saying the BRT is the end state of what we want. In five -six years, not now.

“What we are negotiating now is the transformation of the industry so that at the end of the day we can come to the BRT,” says Hani.

The taxi industry fears that if it is implemented as planned, they will be consumed by the local Algoa bus company. He wants time for the city’s 10 taxi associations to form themselves into five co-operatives that will then contract with the city to operate the new system.

A key demand is that taxi owners keep driving their vehicles on the main routes, rather than buses only. The city has given ground. In March, it agreed to redesign the dedicated bus lanes to allow taxis to run along them as well.

The lanes have been widened at bus stations to allow taxis to overtake stationary buses. Taxis will stop just before or after the bus stations.

Tokota explains the move as a temporary measure to get the forum on board.

“Taxis were not and should not be allowed into the bus routes, because they will impede each other. But … we are buying time and we are educating them,” he says. “The aim and objective of the BRT is to expedite traffic from point A to point B, whereas the accommodation of these two modes of traffic is going to slow it down.”

The city’s accommodation is contentious. The city could have done more to exploit the public wish for safe and reliable transport — which assumes even more urgency given weekend revelations that many taxis on SA’s roads are illegally converted Toyota panel vans, rather than the specially designed taxi vehicles. But it has not. It has done little to canvas the views of the city’s business networks or of the public.

“They backed down too far,” says one national government observer. “They had a lot of community support.”

Nelson Mandela Bay does not even have a website making the case for the Integrated Public Transport System, as the network is officially known — a name change made out of a desire to please the taxi industry.

“The taxi industry doesn’t like anything that’s got the three letters B-U-S in it,” mutters another observer.

But for better or for worse, Nelson Mandela Bay metro has chosen to play its hand a certain way. At a meeting last week, the city offered to help the taxi associations set up the co-operatives that will eventually replace the current associations.

“We want their co-operation and buy-in to the BRT concept. We want to show them that the income they will be getting, depending on the numbers that are joining, they will not be worse off than when they were operating loosely.

“We want to create a spirit of co-operation … At the end of the day this has to be a negotiated process,” Tokota says.