The People Shall Move – Ofentse Mokonyane
Ofentse grew up in Kgarankuwa, a settlement just north of Pretoria. He remembers taking a taxi with his mother when he was a child. There was cigarette smoke in the taxi because taxi drivers were still allowed to smoke with passengers in the taxi.
“You could be small and breathless” in a public space, with nobody looking out for or considering your needs. “So youth and children need to find someone to speak for them and rise up on their behalf.” That memory and experience was what seeded Ofentse’s curiosity in transport. He is now an early career transport economist with a working philosophy of building people and places.
He remembers a tragic story from 2007 when a metro bus strike became extremely violent, and employees ended up killing each other in Village Main. Two employees were burned beyond recognition, just because they chose to go to work during a strike. “Transport is a site of struggle”. Whether it is the working township population commuting to work in the city, or employees demanding better wages, transport has always been the site of struggle.
After a car accident where a child was violently killed, a small community banded together in protest to demand road safety and more responsible behaviour from drivers. “To stitch a community together is not as easy as speed humps”, Ofentse says. The constant trauma and violence pedestrians are subjected to at the local and community level cannot be resolved only by slowing down traffic. “There are 15 000 deaths per year, 106 million people are exposed to a type of accident or trauma on the roads.” Why is it always the responsibility of the oppressed, poor or vulnerable to appeal to the humanity of those with power? If we conceptualise how violence is expressed, we need to acknowledge how society is structured. “We are tearing communities apart.”
We need to talk about public roads and how we interact. The taxi industry carries about 60% of the commuter load in South Africa. 10 families can lose a breadwinner in a single taxi accident. A participant shares that “the taxi industry is not the nicest to work in. It was never a choice being in the taxi industry. We had taxis as a family. The most traumatic was losing my mother in a taxi accident.”
One crucial aspect of healing in transport is acknowledging customs and reflecting our own practices in all forms of mobility, especially as it relates to fatalities. “We have been disconnected from spirituality”, particularly as Africans in urban settings. “People were always buried behind churches and it’s common practice for spirits to be collected from accident scenes. There are spirits roaming from accidents – unclaimed and unsettled spirits. This reflects itself in many ways – “subtle things happen (if you pay attention). Near Khutsong, there is a shortcut to get into Joburg via Carltonville. If you take that shortcut, you get warnings about using the road at night. I got this cold chill as I crossed the railway.”
“We always talk about bottom-up but there is a fundamental error in the capitalist environment. We have to heal in other spaces before healing can happen in transport.” One participant shared their experience as an official in the stormwater department, saying “we would get called to where houses were flooded – to child-headed households where floors are not cemented. We can only tell them that we don’t have the budget to assist. Over and over again we do this. It’s traumatic every time, being the bearer of bad news. They see a black person coming to assess the situation and they see hope.”
There is trauma in how public transport was conceptualised and how it is. Trauma starts from the actual vehicle but there is also the conflict in who delivers the service. Trauma experienced in transport is about other social issues such as inequality, poverty and Gender-Based Violence that transport highlights. “So many of us are vulnerable because of public transport.” Transport is an enabler and a tool we want to be able to use to solve the issue of spatial disparities. “There is also the trauma of being an official in transport. There is a lot of pressure where we are told what normal standards are. There is a strange network of principles embedded in our culture of planning. The policy is a sum of the problem, proposals and politics.”
We have a duty to find solutions. There is a certain level of invisibility that comes from being a pedestrian. “It shouldn’t be called public transport but dignified transport. We need to mainstream dignity across the sector. This will ground it on a moral level. Officials will find it hard to define and engineers will not like it but it must be done.”