I don’t know why they changed the name of the Civic Theatre. A big sign board claimed that “Johannesburg Civic Theatre” was too much of a mouthful, and that “Johburg Theatre Complex” was infinitely snappier, which in the long version it clearly is not. Shortened, as always happens, “Joburg Theatre” is beaten by “the Civic” hands-down-no-contest. The latter, I think, is at least as sexy as NYC’s “the Met” with comparable suggestions of the gravity of excellence in performance art. “Johburg Theatre”, on the other hand, positively rings with the pedestrian dum-de-dum of amateur dramatic societies and ballet classes brimming with gauche and resentful preteens.
It is a damning comparison that one could easily apply to other areas of local municipal service, not least of all the Metrobus, and I should know as I was standing in the shade of the Joburg Theatre Complex waiting for it. Across the road the recently-renamed Metropolitan Centre (oh! the parody!) reached formidably into the sky, a mysterious and ugly monument to incompetence, fiscal imprudence, corruption and general idiocy. From last year’s Miss World fiasco to the ongoing, Kafkaesque reports about the water and electricity billing problems that Dumisani Soap and others suffer on a regular basis, our Met does not much inspire confidence in its ratepayers.
So standing at the bus stop was a slightly surreal experience. I was with Mark and Kay, my friends and neighbours who habitually relied on the #3 to get home in the afternoon, but I completely expected the bus not to come. Every now and then we would glance, in unison, down Loveday Street to where it curved in the direction of the city, but in the steadily thickening throng of home-time traffic, no bus would arrive.
I have lived in Johannesburg for 20 years and have not used the bus service even once since I moved here. It was not really possible – my working hours were irregular and I usually worked late. (I know what that sounds like, and for sure, waitressing and TV production are both labour-cash exchange forums of the most sordid kind.) So the rusty Volvo 144 that I inherited on my 21st birthday was instrumental both in confirming my status as a single-passenger vehicle commuter and my long, happy relationship with the AA.
But working hours and places of domicile and employment change, so the last time I watched the tail lights of a yellow truck with my car on the back disappear down the road to Walter the Mechanic, it occurred to me that in theory, I should be able to take the bus to work and back. A completely unfamous person called Jan L A van de Snepscheut was one of quite a few people who once said that in theory, there is no difference between theory and practice, but in practice there is. Nonetheless, I thought that taking the bus to work will be an adventure, and if it was feasible possible, I may even do it on a regular basis.
It was not as if I was recklessly optimistic. I had been sidelined, overtaken, and squashed to the curb quite a few times by Metrobuses on the very road I travel to work daily, and I have seen people get on and off said buses not one hundred metres from the university. All that I needed, I thought, was a timetable, a ticket, and to find out what bus I had to take. So I logged on to the internet and in about twenty minutes or so managed to download the 111 pages of the Metrobus timetable from the City of Johburg website.
The first warning bells started to ring.
The timetable was, on the whole, a fascinating and mysterious document in which I could not find a single indication of a bus that travelled down Oxford Road, via Rosebank and Killarney to Braamfontein in the morning. Not one. I searched the document: “Killarney”, “Braamfontein”, “Wits” and “Oxford”. There were a few buses that travelled from town via Killarney to Sandton in the morning, and then in the opposite direction in the afternoon, but none, apparently, that went into town before, well, 4pm. I thought this was odd. What does the #546D bus do, for example, between its arrival in Sunninghill via the CBD, Killarney, Illovo and Sandton at 07h50 and 16h40 when returns to Rosettenville? Does the driver take a nap in the back? Does he read the Daily Sun or perhaps War and Peace, seeing that – in theory – he would certainly have enough time? Does he wash the bus? Does he moonlight as a taxi driver?
And why does the #546D’s route end at Sunninghill in the morning, but start in Sandton, eight hours and fifty minutes later for the return journey? Same story with the #547D – goes all the way there, but leaves from Sandton. It appeared as if, once you step off the bus in Sunninghill, you can check out any time you like but you can never leave.
If you are from Rosettenville and need to make a return trip to Sunninghill from Monday to Friday, you have, in fact, a better chance of achieving this if you take the #546E, which both arrives and departs from Leeuwkop prison. It seems that the resources of the Department of Correctional Services are strained to the extent that visitors and workers are, in fact, allowed to go home again. This is of course an excellent situation in a democracy.
Entertaining as the Metrobus timetable was, it did not give me any indication that the service could help me travel the eight kilometres between my flat and Wits University. I knew that it was possible, because Kay and Mark did it, and I was sure I could figure out how to do this myself. But after scrutinising the 111 pages of the schedule for an hour, I tossed the idea. Sometimes you have to phone a friend. Or someone who might either be able to help or provide an outlet for one’s frustration.
I called the City of Johannesburg’s Call Centre on 011 375 555. There was a very confusing message on the answering service about call duration and new software, but once I pressed “6” for “Metrobus”, someone answered almost immediately.
I asked what bus I could take from Killarney to Braamfontein in the morning. A dull and slightly desperate voice said, after a moment or two, that the Killarney buses were #1 and #5C at 07h15 and 07h30. When I asked where I could catch these, it turned out that 1) they did not go to Braamfontein, and 2) that they did not go even in its direction, in the morning. They travelled to Killarney and beyond in the morning, and to town in the afternoon. This was what the timetable indicated. Is there another bus that goes to Killarney in the afternoon I asked, thinking of that strange Sunninghill-Sandton situation, but she said no. But… but… I have seen them… I insisted. The outcome of the conversation was that seeing is not always believing.
Finally I asked about other public transport options and she seemed sad to have to answer in the negative, again. “Only Metrobus and Putco.” She did not mention the Rea Vaya project that has been causing such a stink with the taxi operators, but I knew that those routes served mainly the inner city from Ellis Park to Soweto.
The desperate citizen act got a bit tired so I phoned the marketing department. I am from the Wits Journalism Department, I said, writing a piece about public transport, and I wanted to know why there was no bus service between Killarney and Braamfontein. The man transferred my call back to the call centre where I spoke to Betsheba Tsheole.
Who decides, who plans the routes? I asked, but she had no answer for that. When I asked about Killarney/Braamfontein, she simply said that if I could get 45 people to sign a petition, then “they would give them a bus.” The petition would have to be faxed to “Monie” at 011 403 4349.
In the meantime, if I wanted to get to Braamfontein from Killarney, she said, I had to catch #5D or #01 to town and then take the #413 or #412 to Braamfontein. And yet, that same afternoon I was going to catch a bus from Loveday Street that took me straight home. How can they not know of it? It occurred to me that if the Metrobus service transported 90 000 commuters daily in 532 buses via 80 scheduled- and 130 school routes, as they claim to on the website, perhaps they did so in spite of themselves, or at least in spite of their call centre operators.
Chris Barron’s interview with Mayor Amos Masondo in the Sunday Times on 7 February confirmed that even our first citizen did not have faith in the system. Chris asked him, “Do you use public transport?”
“Once in a while, yes. I use a taxi once in a while,” the Mayor replied.
“Wouldn’t it send an encouraging message if you used public transport to get to work?” Chris tried.
Mr Masondo was defiant. “I don’t know if you’re aware of this but annually, every October or so, we use public transport.”
“You use public transport every October?”
“Just to try and encourage people to use public transport.”
“So you use public transport once a year?”
“Yes sir. I don’t use public transport daily.”
And later: “If the public transport was any good would you use it?” To which Mr Masondo enthusiastically responded, “Absolutely, absolutely.” Which, of course, gave Chris the opening to ask, “So you admit that it’s not?” And so on. The Mayor did not really stand a chance.
The Gauteng Tourism Authority website is blunt about this in their advice to out-of-towners. “Visitors should be aware that Johannesburg, like Los Angeles, is a young and sprawling city geared to the freeway-borne private motorist, and public transport, geared mainly to the city’s workers, may not be appropriate for foreign tourists.” In plain English. Our city’s public transport system is the equivalent of an amateur dramatic society and there was no pretending otherwise.
So the fact that we were even there, waiting near the great cocoon that (I imagined) housed the conversant folk who virtually assured me that I was waiting in vain, bordered inane optimism. But I was waiting with Kay, who said that such a service existed, and just because she works for Eskom is no reason to disbelieve her. She was indeed a person without a car, and she managed to get around in Johannesburg just fine.
More people started congregating in the slipway. There was expectation in the air. I was still sceptical. “Which bus is ours?” I double checked with my friends. “Number three” Kay said, remarkably terse for a girl who liked to chat. Was she also tense? We hesitantly left the shade of the theatre and crossed the slipway. The bus stopped. The number on it was 15B. “It’s not our bus,” Mark said, and we stopped too, uncertain, and began reversing. And then, “It is our bus… that is our driver,” Mark said as he moved with greater urgency towards the open door. Although the distance we had to cover was only about six metres, we were quite breathless when we stepped inside. The moment felt like a close shave.
We sat down; there was a lot of space. I was clearly a little light-headed with the whole affair and the two other travellers who sat close to us, towards the back, laughed sympathetically. But they understood. “How would you know this is your bus?” I asked. “You just know,” one woman said. “You have to know the driver.” I think if a person was used to the uncertainty of it all, and sure that all roads led either to Braamfontein or the city centre, eventually, a little boldness would perhaps make a bus commuter out of them after all. You could ask the driver where he was going, I suppose, and if you had time, feel your way around the system in that way.
The bus floated past the Johannesburg College of Education, Charlotte Maxeke and into Oxford road. I love bus rides. I love the heaviness of the vehicle, the moving landscapes, the people who come and go. Our stop was on the corner of Oxford and Riviera, three blocks from the flat. The trip was quick, safe and uneventful. We zig-zagged past the home-time crowd on the sidewalk, chatting. I wondered at moments I would never notice if I zipped past in my car, and I savoured them.
I would be mobile again the next day. The experience was empowering after all – I would never think again that I was stranded if I did not have a car. Perhaps like Mr Masondo, I would mark “Public Transport Day” on my calendar. But because of the confusion and the uncertainty, taking the bus would, for me, be a special occasion or a last resort. It is a shame, since so much more than this is possible.