Neels Blom Writer at large

The management of the South African transport system is dysfunctional and impedes its development and the formalisation of a chaotic minibus-taxi industry, says independent transport analyst Paul Browning.

He was delivering a presentation at the Competition Commission’s inquiry into SA’s land-based public passenger transport market at Constitutional Hill in Johannesburg on Monday.

The inquiry comes as passenger transport systems throughout the country are failing at an increasing rate. Delegates are submitting evidence of escalating violent crime on commuter trains and violence among minibus-taxi operators, violent clashes between metered-taxi operators and e-hailing services, and near-universal unreliability and inadequacy of all commuter services.

The inquiry intends formulating proposals that will lead to "meaningful mobility" for South Africans in pursuit of economic participation.

The delegate from the Soweto Commuter Organisation supported Browning’s views, criticising commuter buses as unroadworthy, dirty, unsafe and that the operators were uncaring of passenger needs. He was similarly critical of commuter trains and minibus taxis.

In large part, Browning, who represents the National Transportation Task Team (NTTT), blames the failure of commuter systems on municipalities for poor implementation of transport strategies. Plans and strategies have existed for more than years, says Browning, but there is no evidence of developing the minibus taxi industry, for instance, as envisaged in the national government’s policy documents.

"Few municipalities are capable of implementing (transport) plans and they are too slow, they do not have the capacity to adapt to change," said Browning.

Referring to the bus rapid transit system, he said planning might be too rigid, and that there would be no point in legislating if the laws were unenforceable.

He said this was evidenced by the market imbalance between subsidised transport operators — state-owned commuter trains and long-established bus services — as a barrier to entry to minibus-taxi operators, resulting in illegal, unlicensed, unregulated and dangerous operations.

In its submission to the commission, the NTTT says minibus taxi operators must be "required and assisted" to adopt management structures similar to those of the bus companies.

"The additional costs which will be incurred can be met initially by a combination of reductions in existing operating costs and modest increases in fares, together with some possible operating subsidy," it says.

It was impossible, however, to subsidise the minibus taxi industry under present conditions, said Browning. What was needed to implement subsidies was an accounting system, though this was not possible in the informal industry in which minibus taxis operated.

Browning agreed with an observation by the commission’s panel that this created a dilemma in which formalising the industry would be impossible if the minibuses were not subsidised. Several efforts at formalising the industry had failed, he said.

Khumalo proposed that commuters should be subsidised, not the transport operators. Subsidies went to apartheid-era operators. He further proposed a single-ticketing system that would be valid on taxis train and buses.

In its submission, the South African National Taxi Council said the state of competition in public passenger transport was discriminating and unfair. "The playing field is not level due to the fact that taxis are not subsidised while buses and trains are."

The hearing continues throughout the week.