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New buses rattle South African taxi drivers

South Africa's taxis once took on apartheid. Now they have a new foe: a network of futuristic stations and buses.

South Africans line up for a new bus service in Soweto. South Africa's government launched a rapid bus service ahead of the 2010 soccer World Cup but private taxi drivers threatened violent protests against the new service. Fearful the bus service would hurt their business, the South African National Taxi Council (SANTACO) threatened a nationwide strike. It lost a court bid to stop the bus service. (Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters)

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — After thriving despite the oppression of the apartheid regime and surviving years of violent infighting, South Africa’s taxi industry is ready to take on its latest foe: a bright red and shiny bus system.

“Taxis” in South Africa mostly refer to white minibuses that operate on hundreds of routes linking the sprawling townships to downtown areas. Because of the dismal state of the country’s public transportation, the taxis provide an invaluable service to millions of commuters each day.

The taxi service is not above reproach, however. Passengers routinely complain about the rudeness of taxi drivers. The taxi drivers also have a reputation for aggressive driving that takes traffic laws as mere suggestions. The wild driving of some taxis drives other road users to exasperation and leads to frequent and tragic crashes.

Enter the Rea Vaya Bus Rapid Transit System (BRT), a network of futuristic stations and buses designed to offer a cleaner and safer alternative to the local taxis. The main route connects Soweto with downtown Johannesburg with additional routes to be added in coming months and similar operations to be rolled out in other cities, including Cape Town and Pretoria. These efforts and the construction of Gautrain — a new rail service being built to link the Johannesburg and Pretoria city centers — are also set to play a critical role in transporting soccer fans during next year’s World Cup.

Mami Mazibuko is ready to switch allegiances. The 33-year-old spends about an hour in taxis to and from work every day, but she said the rudeness of taxi drivers is pushing her to explore other options.

“I don’t like using the taxis, that’s why I’m trying the buses,” she said minutes before taking her first trip on a BRT bus in downtown Johannesburg. “The treatment they’re giving us, these (taxi) drivers, it’s not nice at all,” said Mazibuko.

Attracted by the new buses’ cleanliness and comfort, Mazibuko would seem a prime target for the BRT’s marketers, but her situation also highlights the bus system’s limitations: The new buses have yet to find their way to her side of town, so for the foreseeable future she is stuck with minibus taxis.

The taxi industry developed in black townships several decades ago as an alternative to the subsidized buses provided by the apartheid government. Black workers were reluctant to ride in what they considered to be yet another symbol of an oppressive regime, and black-owned taxis became the preferred mode of transportation.