The Rea Vaya dream hobbles on

In its latest guarantee, Johannesburg’s transport department says that the next leg of the city’s public bus system will be operational by September.

Children born on the same day that the first passenger stepped on to a Rea Vaya bus will be starting high school next year. And still, Johannesburg’s flagship bus system has not achieved its founding goal of linking Soweto and Sandton via cheap and efficient mass transport.

Now, Funzi Ngobeni, the latest in a string of transport members of the mayoral committee who have tried to deliver Rea Vaya’s ambitious vision, says the buses will be running by September 2022.

It took three years, from its conception in 2006 to its first trip in 2009, for Rea Vaya to get off the ground. The initial breakneck delivery of the system was in part because of the local government’s ability to break through bureaucratic bottlenecks in the lead-up to the 2010 Fifa World Cup, and in part due to a strong city council that was able to engage effectively with the powerful taxi industry.

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In the 11 years since, Rea Vaya’s progress has been marred by an increasingly divided city council and stalled negotiations with the industry. Now, Ngobeni says that “the taxi associations are on board” and that the long-awaited agreements on a bus operating company for the next phase of Rea Vaya were concluded in March with the Alexandra taxi operators, whose business stands to be impacted by buses ferrying passengers along Louis Botha Avenue.

The mayoral committee approved the compensation of the affected taxi operators along with the details of new operating company, the Alexandra Bus Company, in mid-May, says Ngobeni. Both need to pass through the city council ahead of the process of public comment, which is set to close around September.

Johannesburg’s mayoral committee approved Rea Vaya’s Louis Botha leg, which runs from the city centre to Sandton, in April 2017. In the half a decade since, Joburgers have had six different mayors and countless guarantees that the many empty bus stations stranded in the middle of the city’s streets will start working.

The next phase

When it is eventually up and running, Rea Vaya’s next phase will expand the existing system considerably. Around twice as many passengers will be riding on as much as two times the current number of buses. The mayoral committee approved the plan to buy the new buses on 5 October 2021. It remains a far cry from Rea Vaya’s founding vision, however, which sought to link peripheral working-class neighbourhoods – Protea Glen, Tembisa, Cosmo City, Lenasia – along with OR Tambo International Airport in Ekurhuleni to the economic opportunities in Sandton and the inner city.

Ngobeni, whose position at the helm of the transport department is one of the results of Action SA’s strong showing at the latest local government elections, says the city remains “committed to expanding on the routes we currently have”. Feasibility studies into how Rea Vaya might link to Ivory Park and Tembisa are ongoing.

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In the face of a bleak fiscal situation and Rea Vaya’s anaemic ridership numbers, an increasingly parsimonious National Treasury continues to debate the system’s viability. One 2018 study by University of Johannesburg transport scholars suggested that the 35 000 people who used the buses every day in 2010 had plummeted to 16 000.

Ngobeni, who maintains that the city is “not expecting profit out of this”, says his department is concerned by the current funding and the model. “We are concerned about the shrinking national grant and about the city having to contribute so much. National government really needs to come on board to make this transport system work.”

If Ngobeni’s September guarantee is realised, the direct link between people in Soweto and the economic opportunities of Johannesburg’s northern suburbs promises to be a considerable, if tardy, counterbalance to the apartheid city design that kept them apart for generations.

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