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SA's transport system is in crisis, says the writer. Picture: SIPHIWE SIBEKO/REUTERS
SA's transport system is in crisis, says the writer. Picture: SIPHIWE SIBEKO/REUTERS

Safe, reliable and affordable public transport is hugely important for the working class. An efficient and well-maintained system of aviation, harbours, rail and road is critical for the economy. Any democratic state that claims to represent the people must build and maintain an adequate public transport system, and an adequate general transport infrastructure. 

However, in SA the transport system is in crisis. Working-class people spend a huge proportion of their incomes on transport, which is often unreliable and unsafe, particularly for women. The working class are being transported to and from work in vehicles that are often not roadworthy — known as jikeleza or iphela — on roads that are often unsafe. Violence can erupt at any time due to disputes around the allocation of routes. An ordinary commute can become a matter of life and death. 

The national airline has largely been destroyed, our ports are poorly maintained, the road system is crumbling before our eyes and the rail network is in deep crisis. The country’s capacity to build and maintain a proper transport system has been destroyed by tendering systems placed in the hands of the private sector, which has become riddled with corruption. We all see the results of austerity and corruption with the potholes that are now everywhere. The army of workers who used to construct roads at both provincial and municipal level has been wiped out. The few workers who remain are facing threats of job insecurity and retrenchments. 

The new forms of privately owned and managed transport that are emerging, such as e-hailing services, are generally highly exploitative and not unionised. Truck drivers are also generally not unionised, and the same is true of many workers in warehouses, which are rapidly expanding due to the rise of e-commerce and “just-in-time” inventory management models. 

Moreover, as many economies deindustrialise and reduce investment in national rail systems, the distribution of imported goods via warehouses and road networks has made trucks, their drivers and the road system central to the economy. The ring-wing has sought to exploit this, as we have seen with the road blockades by far-right truck drivers in Canada and Brazil. Here too we have a serious problem with far-right xenophobic organisations snaking into the trucking sector.  

Imperative to organise 

Transport workers have a proud history of progressive organising. The Industrial & Commercial Workers Union, which became a huge trade union operating across Southern Africa, was born on the docks in Cape Town in 1919. It is often forgotten that it was the dock workers’ strike in 1972 that kicked off the famous Durban strikes the following year. Dock workers around the world refused to offload ships from apartheid SA, and SA workers have shown the same solidarity for Palestine. 

The rise of right-wing forces in the trucking industry is a matter of serious concern and it is imperative for progressive unions to offer an alternative form of organisation and politics. In SA the Durban corridor, the chief supply route for the SA economy and much of the region, is an urgent priority. Workers are highly exploited in terms of wages, working hours, and health and safety.

A worker-controlled approach to unionisation that commits to addressing these issues and works to build solidarity between truck drivers in SA and across the region, as well as the rest of the world, is essential. We must uproot the dangerous xenophobia that has become prevalent due to the bosses abusing workers made vulnerable by a lack of documentation and permits.  

There is a similar urgency to organise workers across the aviation and rail sectors, in warehouses and in the e-hailing industry. Workers across different parts of the transport system must be linked so that we avoid conflict between people working in different parts of the system. It is also essential that progressive unions build alliances around a common vision for an end to austerity and for an expansionary budget that can generate investment in the ports, aviation, rail and road systems.

If we do not restore our transport networks, the economy will continue to suffer and people will not be safe on our roads. Indeed, the sight of decaying roads all around us leads to a general sense of pessimism, a sense that the country is slowly falling apart.  

After years of pressure from the right-wing, our aviation system has been largely privatised. Our union had to stage running battles with the ANC government as it pursued a naked agenda to defund, frustrate and privatise SAA. In the end 3,560 employees were retrenched and the remaining 850 or so workers had their benefits and conditions of work reduced drastically. Ordinary workers’ salaries were cut by 35%, night and shift allowances were taken away, hours of work were increased unilaterally, employees were relocated without any financial provision, positions were merged resulting in unbearable workloads, and people are now even expected to work without lunch breaks. 

A privatised aviation system will, by definition, operate only in the interests of private profit and not social or national interests. By giving up our state-owned airline we surrendered an important part of our autonomy as a nation. This must be reversed.  

The bus system is also in crisis. Wages are shocking, and conditions of work are harsh. When two drivers are sharing the work on a long-distance trip, drivers are considered to not be at work when they are resting. This is unacceptable. Moreover, the state has abandoned the sector because provincial and municipal governments often refuse to pay the required subsidies.  

Prioritising social interests 

Along with the problem of xenophobia, there are serious gender issues that require attention. For instance, only about 2% of heavy-vehicle drivers are women, and this number has not changed substantially in recent years. The barriers to greater participation of women include precarious working conditions, health and safety concerns, lack of sanitation and other welfare facilities, poor work organisation, sexual harassment and violence, and work-life imbalance. There is also a persistent workplace culture in which women have to be “tough” to prove they are “fit for the job”. While more women work in the warehouse sector, they are often concentrated in lower-grade and lower-paid work. 

Public transport cannot be left to the market. The state needs to intervene with significant investment in public transport, including support for existing forms of transport used by the working class such as buses and taxis. To achieve this, the ongoing programme of austerity, which is just another structural adjustment programme, must be rejected. At the same time, we need clear, rigorous and transparent systems of control to do away with the system of corrupt tenders and ensure the people’s money is used for the good of the people.  

Ultimately, we need to work towards a socially owned and worker-managed transport system operated in the public interest. The National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) is committed to working to unionise transport workers across different parts of the transport system, to building solidarity with migrant workers and workers across the region, to building a campaign against austerity and corruption, and for a transport system that operates in the interests of the people of SA. 

• Jim is general secretary of Numsa, which is participating in the International Transport Federation conference taking place in Johannesburg from March 13-18. 

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