One day in 1985, the Johannesburg Star ran an article highlighting the heavy losses incurred in operating municipal buses in the city. The resultant account, it was suggested, burdened ratepayers with unnecessary expense that merited serious attention.
The paper listed a number of steps that might be taken to minimise the steadily increasing annual deficit – R15.7 million in the 1984 financial year. None had much to do with running buses in the ordinary sense.
The municipality ran buses for the benefit of anyone who wished to travel, the Star explained, but the costs incurred were the responsibility of residents who owned property, in other words the city’s ratepayers.
The problem lay with the means of providing travel. Buses to the suburbs ran full in the afternoon peak when people were going home but were empty on their return trips.
On these inward journeys to the city, the empty buses bypassed large numbers of passengers waiting at bus stops – passengers such as gardeners and domestic workers, themselves requiring transport home.
In the early morning, the situation was reversed. Empty buses plodded their way out to the suburbs, returning to the city with full loads of commuters.
After the evening peak was over, there was insufficient demand for service, so on most routes, there wasn’t any.
On some routes, but by no means all, Putco buses came along to take the gardeners and domestic workers to where they were employed.
So far, so good. At this point the paper’s reasoning became a little muddled. One could not think of integrating services, it was pointed out. Were black passengers to be permitted to ride on white buses, for instance – which appeared to be what was envisaged – they would not be able to afford the fares.
The chance that fares might be lower if bus services were integrated did not seem to occur to the writer.
In his research he discovered that 70 vehicles were needed for the 12 routes operated for blacks at the time – incurring a loss of R2 million – while 376 vehicles were required to work 100 routes for whites – incurring the rest of the remaining R13.7 million deficit.
The possibility of running a total of 100 routes with buses allowed to carry both white and black people at the same time was not even contemplated. One didn’t contemplate nonsensical courses of action in the Johannesburg in 1985.
The reality of course was that 88 routes had no service for blacks at all.
Had the 12 black routes been combined with the 100 white routes, the gardeners and domestics could have been accommodated on the empty buses going out to fetch white commuters on their way to work, and the situation would have been neatly reversed in the afternoons.
There might even have been justification for a limited late-night service on some of the routes.
Unthinkable though a mixed service might appear, there was also an outside possibility that the combined service might have paid its way, without burdening the rates account at all.
All this was wishful thinking, in the halcyon days of 1985, when white was still white and black was black and nobody in his right senses thought otherwise. Except just possibly the property owners who had to pay for the extraordinary situation and dared not speak out of turn.
Fifty kilometres or so to the north lay Pretoria, the seat of government, where people didn’t even write articles that speculated on unthinkable possibilities.
Pretoria did not provide municipal transport for black persons as they were not regarded as residents, even though they worked on properties in the city and suburbs.
Pretoria’s municipal buses were run for the use of white residents only, incurring a sizeable deficit that property owners paid under duress, wisely keeping their opinions to themselves.
Putco paid its way
Gardeners and domestic workers in Pretoria relied on Putco, which not only paid its way but charged fares that the government subsidised, making them very reasonable indeed.
The reasons for the wierdness of this situation were convoluted, having much to do with a prolonged boycott many years before, following the raising of fares by a penny.
Putco also ran buses in Johannesburg, confusing the issue of who paid for what, although – unlike the municipal situation – it only served black persons. This meant that Putco buses conveying domestics and gardeners outwards from the city tended to run empty on their way back.
Apartheid on Johannesburg buses is long gone, but today there are other operators, all with different fares, and things are more confused than ever.
Getting back to Pretoria, it happened at around this time that the government in its wisdom deemed Japanese citizens to be white. This bizarre decision had strange repercussions, not least where municipal buses were concerned.
Citizens of Chinese extraction, you see, fell within the all-embracing blanket classification “non-white”. Under no circumstances could a municipal bus driver load a Chinese passenger.
Were he to deny entry to a Japanese person however, he could find himself in serious trouble, not least the infringement of diplomatic niceties. The disciplinary implications were best left to the imagination: precisely how was a Pretoria bus driver expected to distinguish Chinese from Japanese would-be passengers at a municipal bus stop?
Less complex in Cape Town
Bus apartheid was far less complicated in Cape Town, where there was only one operator, unless one counted the old Golden Arrow company, but that was confined to routes from Mowbray station.
Government directions were generally straightforward, like requiring specific seats to be set aside for white persons. The consequence of course was absurd. It meant that black passengers had to stand next to seats reserved for white persons, even if they were unoccupied.
Conductors had to ring the “bus full” signal, even if seats reserved for white passengers were standing empty.
On the Sea Point- Diep River route, it was required that whites-only buses had to be provided at 30 minute intervals. Inevitably, most ran empty. Travellers take the first vehicle that arrives – and unrestricted vehicles on the same route came past every seven minutes.
Johannesburg municipality’s elegant livery did not distinguish between racial niceties.
A green painted board below Johannesburg windscreens indicated separate facilities.
Pretoria municipal buses were strictly segregated.
Putco was not selective.
Certain Cape Town buses had specific seats set aside for white passengers.
Conductors were required to refuse entry to passengers of one race, even if seats reserved for another race were still vacant.
Most buses on Cape Town’s Sea Point-Diep River route were unsegregated but infrequent “whites only” vehicles were provided.
Few Sea Point passengers in Cape Town waited for the infrequent “whites only” bus; they crammed into the first vehicle that came.