Published on Africa Can End Poverty

After the long walk to freedom, an affordable bus ride to work

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Almost two decades after Nelson Mandela's globally-inspiring long walk to freedom, millions of his compatriots find it prohibitively expensive and time-consuming to simply get to work. Millions more have no work, and the geographical separation of the poor from centers of economic activity has a lot to do with it.


Take the case of Lydia (pictured here), who is a soft-spoken, gentle mother of two boys -- a one-year old baby and a fifteen-year old teenager. Each in his own way needs his single mother's attention and time. Time that she has very little of, because she has to spend close to five hours commuting to and from her place of work, the World Bank office, where she is one of the housekeeping and cleaning ladies.

Lydia lives in Tembisa, a mixture of a township (urban areas built on the fringes of South African cities for non-whites during the apartheid era) and informal settlement. Tembisa derives its name from the Zulu word Thembisa meaning "there is hope". For the 350,000 (according to the 2001 census, likely over half a million today) who live there on just 32 sq. kms., there is so little to give them real hope. South Africa has one of the highest unemployment rates in the world (32 percent, including discouraged workers), much of it concentrated in townships like Tembisa.

Tembisa is about 30 kms from the Bank office. My house is 45 kms from the office. I make that commute in less than 45 minutes whereas it takes Lydia more than two hours.  It costs me less than 5 percent of my net salary.  It costs Lydia more than 40 percent.

Lydia leaves home at 04:45 to be at the office at 07:00. She starts with a 2-km trek, reaching the taxi stand at around 05:20. She takes her first taxi of the day (6 rands, going up to 8 rands on May 1), which takes her to the train station. She catches the train (99 rands a month) at around 05:45, reaching Pretoria at 6:20. She then takes a second taxi (10 rands) and reaches work at 07:00.  She does this in reverse in the evening, leaving work at 16:00 and often reaching home after 19:00 to her two anxious boys, her mother and another family member living with her.  Only to start her morning (wee hours of the night really) at 04:00 the next day. Altogether, she spends close to 750 rands (roughly $110) each month on transportation on a salary of 1,900 rands, and close to 100 hours on the road.

This is not just Lydia's story. This is also the story of countless other poor South Africans who by dint of their history have to live far removed from where economic activity takes place. The proportion of income spent by the poor on transport is in the 20-30 percent range, well above any international norm. According to a study by FinMark Trust, more than 40% of South Africa's urban population (which is 60% of the total population) lived in townships in 2004 and another 20% in informal settlements and low-income housing estates. While classified as urban, these are typically and for all practical purposes situated in limbo -- neither urban nor rural. 

While this rather unique spatial configuration of South Africa is extremely difficult to reverse in the near term, the one thing that can make things better, a well-networked public transportation system, isvirtually non-existent. That space is occupied by the private mini-taxi industry which exhibits cartel-like behavior and in any case lacks the scale to meaningfully lower prices. As shown by my good friend and former colleague, Michele Zini, in his master’s thesis at the Kennedy School, the industry operates around 150,000 taxis, employing over 200,000 people. There is a lot of violence associated with the group and it is politically tightly connected, which has kept at bay serious attempts at expanding affordable public transportation.

The high cost of transport predictably increases the search cost in the labor market and is a major contributor to South Africa's unemployment problem. Short of taking jobs to the people in the townships (perhaps a topic for another blog), bringing down the spatial barriers with smart, affordable public transport seems to be sine qua non for job creation and inclusive growth .

South Africa's long walk to freedom needs to be followed with an affordable bus ride to work.

[This story was written with Lydia's consent]


Sandeep Mahajan

Practice Manager in the World Bank’s Macroeconomic, Trade, and Investment Global Practice, responsible for the Europe and Central Asia region

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