Sustainability: a pipe dream?

Sustainability: a pipe dream?

South Africa’s transport industry is, sadly, no stranger to riots and violence. JACO DE KLERK highlights challenges that the bus industry is facing and discovers that sustainability might just be an unattainable dream.

Public transport is paramount to South Africa’s economic well-being, as Bazil Govender, executive manager of the South African Bus Operators Association, pointed out during a complimentary virtual session during a Transport Forum earlier this year. “Public transport is a key driver within the South African social and economic landscape, and plays a crucial role not only in mobility needs but also in contributing to development within the economy.”

He added that the bus and coach industry is a direct avenue for much of South Africa’s population to get accessibility to otherwise unreachable services and facilities – employment (part- and full-time), education (basic and higher), health (primary and clinical). “This is not just a means for the most vulnerable but is also something that a large part of the middle-income group depends on as well.”

Govender pointed out that sustainable public transport cannot afford nor withstand any negative impacts on assets, infrastructure, route networks and service provision. “Unfortunately – due to a lack of attention to the causes and effects of violence, destruction and intimidation – the public transport network and the bus industry, in particular, is being eroded.”

He explained that, unfortunately, the industry has not been very good at reporting and documenting all of the incidents, which has had an impact on the ability to render safe and reliable services. “The issue comes to the fore when isolated or major incidents make the news or mainstream media.”

One such incident was reported by News24, mid-July, where a Cape Town bus driver was shot in the mouth. “Golden Arrow Bus Service (GABS) spokesperson John Dammert said the shooting occurred at around 06:30 on the N2 between Borcherds Quarry and the Airport Approach Road.”

This terror in the public transport sector came amid talks among taxi operators to resolve a months-long bloody dispute, which started over a route in Mbekweni in Paarl.

But the violence isn’t just spilling over from the taxi industry. “The levels of crime, vandalism and violent protests are escalating both in nature of action and frequency,” Govender declared. “En route crime is on the rise. A major and concerning trend is that of the increased number of incidents where commuters are held hostage and robbed while travelling on buses.” He added that it does appear the gangs are targeting commuters as “soft-targets”. He also highlighted the perception that cash collection on buses represents quick access to cash.

The industry does have several tools at its disposal to fight this scourge, such as vehicle tracking (which can be used to send an armed response or summon the authorities), surveillance cameras (to deter criminals for fear of being prosecuted), as well as alarms and bus barriers that offer some protection to the drivers. But these countermeasures might be too little too late if a bus gets caught up in violent protests or riots where the masses, with absolutely no regard for human life, are looting and burning shops and vehicles.

There might be some merit in providing bus drivers with riot and crowd-control training so that they know what to do and can help commuters during unrest. But how far down the rabbit hole should industry players go?

Should bus drivers receive anti-riot shields and tear gas grenades? Or why don’t companies just armour-plate buses and issue firearms to all of their employees?

If there are groups of people who continue to act lawlessly, why don’t we just declare South Africa the new Wild West and allow everyone to carry out their own form of justice?

But such a slippery slope of anarchy will just cause the country to implode with no hope of recovery.

As GABS eloquently stated in one of its media releases at the beginning of the year: “While GABS recognises that it has a role to play, the primary responsibility for ensuring public safety falls squarely within the jurisdiction of the South African Police Services (SAPS). The principal responsibility of SAPS, as stated in the Constitution of South Africa, is ‘to prevent, combat and investigate crime; maintain and protect the public, their property and the overall security and safety of the Republic; uphold and enforce the law …’ This role cannot be downplayed as it is vital to the well-being of all citizens and underpins the very functioning of our society.”

It made another valid point: “Along with our passengers and staff, the company is the victim, not the perpetrator, of criminal behaviour. We do feel that continually shifting the responsibility for crime prevention onto a private company is simply a convenient way to ignore the failure of the authorities to carry out their constitutional mandates.”

But there is something that all the stakeholders can do to move things in the right direction, as Govender pointed out. “There are no quick-fix solutions to the current culture of violence that is experienced within parts of South African society. A more holistic approach must be followed involving all of the stakeholders and constituencies.

“This highlights the need for information sharing, collation and assessment of trends and patterns, together with more effective law enforcement that must be implemented. Police officials should play a much more prominent role in assisting the industry.

“By documenting and centrally accounting for the causes and effects of the various aspects of violence it will clearly demonstrate that, given the wide-ranging sources of problems, these cannot be solved in isolation.”

The information highway is facing its own set of challenges, unfortunately. “There is limited to no information available as to the levels and extent of crime and violence within the public transport space and, furthermore, where it does exist there seem to be discrepancies,” Govender highlighted.

He says that this can be attributed to many reasons and some of them are:

  • The disconnect between various tiers of government authorities and the different systems used to record and report.
  • The lack of accountability as to where this should holistically reside.
  • Limited to no studies and academic investment in this area.
  • The potential complexity of data and documentary analysis if and when collated, and
  • A level of underreporting due to perceived non-action or support from authorities.

As the saying goes, knowledge is power and a “database” will place the problems and possible solutions in the spotlight in the quest towards sustainability … “To achieve this, it is incumbent to recognise and accept that public transport, and the bus industry in particular, plays a critical role in the creation and contribution to social and economic development,” Govender emphasised. “Safe and affordable transport for our citizens, as provided for in the Constitution, depends on all of the stakeholders.

“Notwithstanding, with the current systemic issues related to, and associated with, crime and violence in our country, it is fast becoming a reality that public transport and the bus industry, in all its forms and sectors, may never stand up to the same levels of quality and service that is required and may be decimated, affecting thousands of livelihoods.

“It is time that we all take a stand and work collectively to stem the tide of destruction and act decisively to counter this scourge.”

Published by

Jaco de Klerk

In his capacity as editor of SHEQ MANAGEMENT, Jaco de Klerk is regarded as one of the country’s leading journalists when it comes to the issue of sustainability. He is also assistant editor of FOCUS on Transport & Logistics.
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