Polokwane's rocky road to better public transport.

There’s more to a rapid transit system than buying buses and building roads – as Limpopo’s capital, and several other South African cities, are discovering.

Joburg has its Rea Vaya Bus Rapid Transit System and Tshwane its A Re Yeng ‘Connecting the Capital’ version  – and so far neither system is quite meeting expectations.

While Rea Vaya has been plagued by bus driver strikes, issues of punctuality and failure to adhere to routes, A Re Yeng is proving significantly more expensive than originally projected. Current opinion is that by the time it becomes fully operational the new bus system will have cost Tshwane double the amount originally projected. This will largely be due to an agreement with taxi operators made by the then ANC municipality (it is now DA-led) to compensate them for loss of earnings on routes designated for A Re Yeng. So far the system has cost the taxpayer more than R2.6bn.

Now the ANC-led Polokwane municipality is moving to set in place Leeto la Polokwane to provide faster, cheaper transport to communities living within a 30km radius of the capital of Limpopo. This is in line with the municipality’s Polokwane 2030 Smart City Vision, that envisages a vibrant up-to-date inner city infrastructure to encourage economic growth and investment.

When plans for the system were unveiled to the media toward the end of 2014, the projected cost was R1.8bn. At that point the municipality had yet to decide on the type of buses to be used, and had not engaged with the various transport operators presently ferrying passengers on the designated routes.

Taxi associations are now demanding compensation for loss of earnings as they presently carry around 70% of commuters to and from the city. Failure to reach agreement could lead to community protests and disruptions to Leeto la Polokwane.

City residents are also questioning the need for the new transport system as there are already three provincial government-subsidised bus operators transporting commuters. Great North Transport, Bahwaduba Bus Service and Madodi Bus Company will all be affected in some way or another by the new system. Communities are saying the municipality should rather focus on upgrading the water infrastructure and the ageing sewage system, neither of which were designed to cope with the rapidly-growing population of a city with more than 600,000 residents.

The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), official opposition in the Polokwane municipal council, have expressed dissatisfaction with the timing of Leeto la Polokwane. “Our people need housing and job opportunities, not an elaborate transport system with dedicated cycle lanes – most of our people are too poor to afford bicycles let alone an expensive public transport system,” said EFF municipal councillor, Ronnie Malema.

 Polokwane Mayor Thembi Nkadimeng and Limpopo Premier Stanley Mathabatha unveiling the name of the city's integrated public transport system in 2016

The idea for Integrated Rapid Public Transport Networks (IRPTNs) stems from the approval by Parliament in March 2007 for the improvement and overhaul of public transport across the country. This has led to the implementation of ‘accelerated modal upgrading’ projects and IRPTNs, as part of a public transport action plan overseen by the national Department of Transport.

 Phase one of the IRPTN introduced rail-priority and bus transit corridors in twelve cities, costing huge amounts of taxpayer money and providing perfect ground for corrupt activities and underhand tender practices.

One only has to look at the recent railway locomotive corruption scandal involving the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa), the Department of Transport and Swifambo, a dodgy company meant to supply the locomotives.

Leeto la Polokwane will be the fifth bus rapid transport system to be implemented, joining, besides Johannesburg and Tshwane, Cape Town and Nelson Mandela Bay. Of the four systems currently in operation, only Cape Town’s MyCiti is operating efficiently, although it only caters for 12% of commuters using public transport in the ‘Mother City’.

The R2bn Nelson Mandela Bay system has been plagued by delays over the past six years, with 60 buses gathering dust while five engineering companies and four project managers came and went before the first phase was finally launched toward the end of last year. Buying the wrong buses and having to negotiate a way out of that was a major reason for delay.

In Polokwane, simply naming the bus system took over 18 months – and cost R2.8m. When Leeto la Polokwane (Journey of Polokwane) was finally decided on in August 2016, then minister of transport Dipuo Peters, Polokwane Mayor Thembi Nkadimeng and Limpopo Premier Stan Mathabatha celebrated to much fanfare and jubilation.

Peters, congratulating the Limpopo provincial government and the Polokwane municipality, declared: “We are pleased to see that the Polokwane new system penetrates through the heart of the CBD, with a transit mall planned. You have done South Africa proud. Together we move South Africa forward.”

Whether Leeto la Polokwane will indeed move the people of Polokwane forward or not – or in any direction at all – remains to seen. Proof of the pudding will come when the first commuters climb onto the first bus in October 2018 – or whenever they do, as not much is certain except that costs will escalate and it is way behind schedule. So far – as confirmed by Mantlako Sebaka, communication officer for Leeto la Polokwane – R876m has been spent on 3.85kms of bus lanes and the infrastructure and planning for Phase 1 and 2, but this does not include procurement of buses.

Phase 1 will integrate the system within a 20km radius and carry as many as 50,000 passengers a day. The route links outlying Seshego to the CBD via Nelson Mandela Drive, with designated bus lanes in both directions and separate cycling and pedestrian lanes on one side of the busy carriageway.

Funding comes from the National Treasury and is disbursed through the Department of Transport, under the leadership of its new minister, Joe Maswanganyi. This is the man who was fired in 2006 from his post of Limpopo MEC for Sport, Arts and Culture by then premier Sello Moloto, for being unable to account for funds allocated for the annual Mapungubwe Festival.

People in Limpopo have wondered quite how he got to be made transport minister, but Maswanganyi must surely be licking his lips, having climbed the ladder from being in charge of a couple of hundred million rand as an MEC to now being custodian of many billions. The Department of Transport will also foot the bill for the buses – each to cost around R12m.

Asked about progress on purchasing the buses and the number needed, Sebaka replied that a service provider has not yet been appointed: “The specifications and negotiations with the industry are nearing completion and the municipality should have clear indications of how many buses will be required.”

Sebaka also said the municipality is currently negotiating with the four operators affected by Phase 1 and 2 – the Flora Park Pietersburg, Moletjie, Seshego Polokwane and Westenburg taxi associations. “The municipality is further engaging the bus operator, Great North Transport. Determination of what should happen with operators in these four affected minibus taxi associations, and the bus operator and their vehicles, will be a negotiated agreement as the system goes live in October 2018,” Sebaka explained. Not much to go on there about what’s actually going on. Failure to reach satisfactory agreements with taxi operators could put the brakes on the entire project.

Chairperson for Seshego Polokwane Taxi Association, Solly Ledwaba, said they have been talking to the municipality for three years about Leeto la Polokwane, describing discussions with the four affected taxi associations and the municipality as “fair and transparent”, with market research currently underway to determine the number of commuters presently using the route.

He said no agreement had been reached with the municipality to date but a memorandum of understanding on the rules of engagement had been issued to taxi associations. Discussions will resume after the current recess of council in preparation for the new 2017/18 financial year.

Will Leeto la Polokwane roll out as envisaged by October 2018?

The people of the North will ‘wait and see’.

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