Inside Government: Putting the “Go” back in George
Inside Government is a newsletter written by Premier Helen Zille.
Putting the "Go" back in George
Government is a roller coaster. The highs are as high as the lows are low, and the brief passage between them can be as stomach churning.
Only one thing is certain: the higher you rise, the lower you are about to drop.
The past week reached its peak with the news of the phenomenal success of the Metro Police Stabilisation Unit, established through a partnership between the City of Cape Town and the Western Cape Government to bring gang violence in Manenberg under control.
Launched just four weeks ago, when fatal gang shootings were a daily occurrence in the suburb, this 90-man unit has already turned the situation around. Since July 24, when they were first deployed, there have been no reports of any violent gang-related incidents in Manenberg at all. In the place of the usual spreadsheet with the death toll, the following report crossed my desk:
In just one month, the unit has searched 1 805 suspects, confiscated 324 units of various illegal drugs, made 47 arrests, inspected seven scrap metal dealers, and confiscated a host of dangerous weapons. There has been one shooting incident and no fatalities.
I started to calculate the cost implications of replicating this “intensive, visible policing” model across all gang-ridden suburbs – a nigh impossible task – but at least I felt we now knew what a solution entailed.
By early afternoon, the trajectory had turned, and the roller coaster was heading south again. News had just come through that four of our new Go George buses had been burnt to a shell (and two more seriously damaged) during protests led by a small, rogue taxi association against the new Integrated Public Transport network in George.
Go George is the result of a unique partnership between the George Municipality, the Western Cape provincial government, the National Department of Transport and local bus and taxi operators in the area. The Provincial Government provides funding and personnel capacity, with the municipality being the contracting authority.
Go George provides scheduled, integrated, affordable, and reliable public transport, with some 700 stops and a fleet of 91 buses. Services run 18 hours a day, seven days a week linking residential areas with business centres, educational facilities, medical facilities, social facilities and recreational areas. We have rolled out three out of the planned six phases, and just celebrated the sale of the millionth ticket, in the first non-Metro integrated public transport system in South Africa. The George public, across the board, has embraced the new system, which has been nine years in the making.
George is the Western Cape’s fastest growing town and the lack of an adequate public transport system was identified as a serious brake on the region’s economic growth potential. The idea of Go George was born.
Much of this time involved negotiations with the taxi associations operating in the area. Our model had to offer them incentives to participate, otherwise resistance (typically violent) would be inevitable. And we understood that their livelihoods were at stake.
The model we finally implemented involved the transformation of the existing local bus and taxi industry into a single privately-owned Vehicle Operating Company (VOC), known as George Link. Its shareholders are previous local bus and taxi operators who chose to “opt in” to the 12-year contract.
An overwhelming 99% of the local taxi and bus industry participated in negotiations to find a workable model. A total of 240 operators chose to opt-in, be bought out, or go for a combination of these two options. More than half of them, 61%, chose one of the “opt in” opportunities. And the Province has already paid R61-million to taxi operators who wanted to “opt out”.
We thought we had made a smooth transition, until last week. At the forefront of resistance was a small taxi association ironically called Uncedo (“Assistance”) whose operators complained that their “buy-out” payments had been inadequate, and that they had forfeited their livelihoods.
The protestors went further than targeting buses. There was also an attempted arson attack at the home of a George Link employee in Thembalethu, causing considerable damage, and several reports of damage to other homes, as well as the destruction of the security CCTV cameras. The estimated cost of a single afternoon’s protest is estimated to be in excess of R15-million.
But even more seriously, these actions meant that the entire Go George service had to be suspended. SAPS and provincial traffic officials were called in to prevent further violence. Employees of the operating company, George Link, had to be removed from the township for their own safety and accommodated elsewhere.
The SAPS provided excellent support, arresting nine people who will appear in court today on charges of public violence. SAPS and other law enforcement agencies implemented high-visibility patrols, and road-blocks and escorted buses throughout the weekend. They are now scrutinizing CCTV footage to identify further vehicles and individuals involved in the violence.
Bringing the situation under control once more required excellent co-operation between the police and government agencies, well coordinated by Acting Commissioner Thembisile Phatekile, Major-General Oswald Reddy, and the provincial Ministers of Transport and Community Safety respectively, Donald Grant and Dan Plato.
Minister Grant flew to George and kept me updated, mainly through text messages. At 01:13, in the early hours of Saturday morning, he forwarded a jubilant message to me, saying that the situation had been brought under control. Key to this was the overwhelming support of the wider George public who started a “Hoot to Salute” campaign – backed by bumper stickers and blue ribbons – in support of Go George. Buoyed by the public support, the drivers returned to work, under police escort.
By Friday afternoon, buses were rolling out of the stations again, to cheers and applause from motorists and pedestrians. People started using the service once more. More than 1 800 passengers were carried during the course of that afternoon. This morning I received reports that the system is humming again.
So we begin a new week on another high. Who knows how many plunges lie in store before Saturday. But that is one of the reasons that working in government is so exciting, and often, rewarding.