World Cup 2010

A common historical thread of South African urban life is conflict related to public transportation. In the 1940s Alexandra residents boycotted buses because they raised fares to an untenable level. Today, taxi and bus drivers strike because of low wages, or, in the case of taxi drivers, fears of replacement by new, more centralized public transportation schemes, BRT or bus rapid transit. Something strikes me as wrong here. When taxi and bus drivers strike, it’s the people who use these modes of transportation who are left scrambling for ways to get to work. I want to be on the side of the workers, but it seems to me like the masses just trying to get a day’s wage are the ones getting screwed the most. And it’s not just strikes. Unsafe drivers are an all-too-common complaint about taxi drivers in particular.

The New York Times’ “Freakonomics” blog links to a study by James Habyarimana and William Jack of the Center for Global Development on how safety is improving on bus advertisement at a time in Kenya:

Habyarimana and Jack report the results of a fascinating field experiment they carried out, putting posters in over 1,000 randomly chosen Kenyan mini-buses. The posters told passengers to speak up if the driver drove dangerously.

And it really seems to have worked. Using data on insurance claims, the authors find that the buses that got these posters saw large declines in crashes relative to the control group, and the accident reduction appears to persist, as long as the signs remain posted.

People who use public transport in South Africa will need to find effective mechanisms to express their voice as these conflicts continue and likely heighten as transportation infrastructure developments continue in the lead-up to the World Cup. As the title of Steven Levitt’s post suggests,”Bus-riders of the world unite!”

Alright, I’m off the crazy train like Baleka Mbete on a bus in Soweto. Doesn’t make much sense except I did somehow end up following the deputy president as she rode a double-decker bus through primarily big shopping malls in the historic township. Here’s a video piece I produced today about the bus tour.

To complete this round-up of recent work, I have a an article and video about my time spent with the three main political parties here as volunteers went door-to-door campaigning in Johannesburg area townships. Below are full-size versions of the pictures that I took now up on The Times website.





Johannesburg 8

picture by flickr user lemoncat1

There’s a lot of talk in the run-up to the World Cup about branding Johannesburg as a “world class city.” One way to understand what that really means is to look at what cities are generally perceived as being worthy of the term. I came across the New York Times’ Globespotters blog today. It’s a group blog with posts written about Amsterdam, Berlin, Hong Kong, Istanbul, London, Madrid, Mumbai, Paris, and Rome. Perhaps it is not so suprising that no city from what us PC liberals call the Global South made the list (I don’t know, does Mumbai count?).

It’s worth debating the merits of Johannesburg as a world-class city. It’s definitely got the concentration of cultural and intellectual happenings to meet the threshold in that area. Tawana Kupe at the School of Humanities at Wits is doing a great job of bringing together local and international experts to debate in public many of the key political and economic issues facing South Africa today. Arts and music at local universities, small clubs, large concert halls, and exhibition spaces are abundant. Great food is easy to find. Perhaps most importantly, Johannesburg is a truly international city. It’s the business hub of the continent, one of its artistic hubs, and definitely a sporting center of the world (top-rated cricket and rugby teams … soccer is in the mid-seventies).

So why does it never make lists like that in the Times‘ “Globespotters” blog (which I’ve arbitrarily designated the be all and all of the designation “world class”)? I think some of this might relate to the immense poverty that is both in the actual city and close by in surrounding townships. Then again, Mumbai is not so different from here in that regard.

One answer, and this is definitely not a silver bullet, is that Johannesburg’s presence on the international scale of the lettered (read: internet-savvy) classes is much diminished. Last year I moved to Philadelphia (probably less of a “world-class city” than Johannesburg in my book) and quickly began working as a journalist there. Though I hadn’t followed politics and urban life there that closely while I was at college just minutes away, it only took me a few days to find a number of websites and blogs that brought me up to speed. I knew what the network of information about Philadelphia was, and the information was in-depth and accessible. Johannesburg is not like this at all. Much of the online commentary that I’ve found about life in Johannesburg is not presented in an accessible way, and is not always that interesting. Then again, maybe there’s something I’ve missed — if so someone please point that out to me.

I think the media strategy on the internet in South Africa is quite complicated given the relative lack of internet penetration (and particularly broadband penetration). But those issues are related to a domestic audience. Being a world-class city means having a presence that is accessible from both outside and in. No top-down marketing campaign can help Johannesburg in this regard. I’ll be curious to see how the cultural life of the city can become more internet-friendly as the World Cup approaches. Will the election set off a non-stop wave of attention on South Africa through next June? Will all that attention be good? How will private citizen journalists, established news media, and the government work to look outwards as the world turns its eyes this way?