INTERVIEW: Edgar Pieterse chats to John Maytham about the Integration Syndicate

Following the launch of The Integration Syndicate: Shifting Cape Town’s Socio-Spatial Debate on Friday, 6 September at the Open Book Festival, Edgar Pieterse (EP) was interviewed by John Maytham (JM), of CapeTalk about the publication and one of the provocations related to minibus taxis. You can read the transcript of the interview below or listen to the interview HERE.

JM: Cities all around the world, and in South Africa are interesting but I think Cape Town is a particularly interesting city and there’s some very big debates which are very pertinent to South Africa. Launched at the Open Book Festival on Friday last week was really fascinating piece of work. It is called The Integration Syndicate: Shifting Cape Town’s Socio-Spatial Debate. This is the result of a couple of years of on-and-off discussions between some very clever people, who got together and said let’s talk; let’s throw it out wild ideas and support those ideas; let’s criticized it as nothing is not possible. Those discussions have been refined and edited and put into this collection. In studio is Edgar Pieterse, a man who thinks very deeply and cleverly about cities, who is the director of the African Centre for Cities at University of Cape Town and the idea just briefly before we get into one of the provocations that you discussed, was to say look let’s not get trapped in historical ways of thinking even if generally those historical ways of thinking were thought to be quite clever, let’s think outside of the box in the best and most meaningful way of that cliché.

EP: Absolutely and I think we were really in some ways inspired by the work of Reclaim the City and some of other social movement in Cape Town, who were suggesting that we can’t continue in this way and that we have to find different responses to age-old problems. I guess my concerns, what sparked this process, was that those provocations tended to still treat the inner city as the Holy Grail. So, there was a focus on the Tafelberg site, the occupations close to the V&A Waterfront and there were the campaigns around gentrification in Woodstock. And of course, the inner-city maybe 20 000 people; we are a city of 4 million people and so really the question is if we are going to confront our legacies and we going to have to think differently about the future; how do we think of the entire metropolitan region in its fullness and that was one of the reasons why we wanted to have this conversation. If you zoom out and you think of the city and its various facets and dimensions from Tyger Valley through to Kuilsriver, from Belhar to Belville and through to Gugulethu and Philippi, you may come to different conclusions about what is doable, what we can imagine but also try and understand what people already doing at the moment but maybe at a small scale and think more provocatively about that.

JM: And so the result was these five provocations Living Differently, Cultural Narratives, Placemaking through Public Works etc. but I thought because this is such a superficial medium to try and do the whole book justice in 8 minutes is impossible, so let’s talk about something in that my listeners complain about all of the time taxis and the provocation around taxis. Provocation 1 is called E-Taxi: “A novel vision for affordable safe and integrated public transport”. The taxi industry started by itself. It was organic growth. It wasn’t somebody sitting in an office saying this is what we will do. It was people saying this is what we need, and we are going to meet that need. It might be messy; it might have all sorts of problems, but it meets the need.

EP: Look it’s a fascinating case. It’s a real South African story that emerged in the cracks of Apartheid and of failing policy to deal with urbanization in the late 70s and through the 80s. And of course, today it’s the backbone of public transport if we are honest about it. It’s also of the object of derision and hatred and abuse and for good reason and we all know what the pathologies of the sector are. But what is fascinating is when one looks at the response that we produced leading up to the World Cup which is the Bus Rapid Transit system, and in case of Cape Town it’s MyCiTi, it is fascinating how this has consumed almost a disproportionate amount of the capital budget of the City of Cape Town and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. To be frank it is an a-contextual solution to our problems. It just won’t work because of sprawl in the city. So the basic rationale behind the it is that you will have these main arteries and you will intensify along those arteries and on the back of that densification they’ll become viable overtime. The truth of the matter is if you look closely enough at our real estate system, both the public and the private, we never going to get the level of densification along those corridors to make the system viable. MyCiTi is of the better ones in the country and it only recovered about 40% of its operating cost as it runs at the moment, it is generally full etc.etc. The problem is we can’t continue to spend that amount of cash on a system that services less than 3% of the total commuting population in the city. So what we did was to say if you look at the sprawled urban form the minibus taxis are the ones that will get to every nook and cranny in the city.

If you look at the census data it tells you that the furthest anyone has to walk in any big city in South Africa to get to a minibus taxis 15 minutes. What that means is we’ve effectively solved public transport in terms of access.

Everything else is a mess: it’s not safe; it’s unaffordable; it is not predictable and so what we suggest is that let’s get into the 21st century. Let’s see whether we can take the platform technologies that are now available, and everyone is using through Uber and Lyft and so forth, and merge that with an organic system. What the consequences of that could be is that will make the service more predictable. We can put speed limiters on. We can take cash out of the equation and we can even through public subsidy ensure that the refurbishment of these vehicles happen so that the middle-class – God forbid – will also actually get out of their cars and also used as mode of transport. And of course you can access it through your mobile phone and so forth.

JM: It is a pie in the sky Edgar! It is a wonderful idea, but taxi industry thrives on as little regulation as possible and for you to be able to persuade the taxi industry to regulate itself to the point that this provocation would require to become a successful policy implemented… WOW.

EP: Look for national government it is in their interest because they will save money. One of the wonderful things of this process was that after we spent a year debating these issues as you indicated, we took the five ideas from that process and we had five focus groups with vested parties who had direct interest in these provocations. We had one on this provocation and had some of the taxi associations there and the City of Cape Town’s innovation department and the point they were making was that they are businesspeople. ‘If you can show us a business model where we can anticipate that our turnover will double or quadruple in the next decade – sure. Even after tax we will make a lot more money than what we make now – there is no issue.’ For them it is really that they are businesspeople and they want to be treated as such. That is common ground from where they are and public policy and the citizens. So I don’t think it is pie in the sky.JM: We are almost out of time, but we must get you back. Maybe we will set up a series where we can discuss all the provocations. One more last thing: You are focusing on the taxi as the solution to public transport and not the train; the train can carry so much more?

EP: It is not at the expense of the train.

JM: Because surely, our most significant public transport achievement would be to have a functioning commuter rail system.

EP: But it is anyone’s guess when we are going to get the necessary traction in that regard… PRASA doesn’t even have a board at the moment. But John just to say that while we can’t get into it all now, the book is available for download from the African Centre for Cities website and the hard copy is available from The Book Lounge. And I would be delighted to walk you through the other four provocations.

JM: Because the one thing I always say when we are talking is about how badly taxis drive, is the way the industry is organized encourages drivers to drive that way and the only way we are going to have taxis driving better on our roads is to change the system.

EP: And this what we propose is if you bring technology, appropriate regulation and business incentives together – and of course there has to be public oversight, no one is saying that they should be a law onto themselves. Just to give you an example, the City’s projected to spend R15 billion on the BRT trunk routes and if we just take a fraction of that and focus on the recapitalization of these taxis… And look let’s not do this overnight; we can have a pilot. And I know the City’s been talking to associations in Mitchell’s Plain, they have explored these avenues themselves. I know some of the association in Gauteng are doing their own R&D on platform-based technologies to take them into the future, so it is not pie in the sky. There is real possibility here.

JM: Ok we will talk again. Thank you so much Edgar.

You can download the book HERE. 

 

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