Recently China opened the world’s longest sea bridge. Officially called the Hong Kong-Macau-Zhuhai bridge, the structure which cost US$20 billion, is about fifty-five kilometres long and while most part covers the sea it also has a seven kilometre tunnel. The construction of the bridge took eight years to complete and now connects Mainland China (Zhuhai) to the semi-autonomous regions of Hong Kong and Macau. 

Before the bridge was built, it took three hours to travel between Zhuhai and Hong Kong. Now, with the new bridge, it takes 30 minutes. By building this bridge it is suggested that Beijing seeks to ensure that the Greater Bay Area becomes a technological and innovation focussed area. Authorities in Beijing suggest that by 2030, nearly thirty thousand vehicles and nearly a hundred and thirty thousand passenger trips would take place on the bridge daily. 

Yet the priority for Beijing is tourists and then trade. While there is currently no public transport system on the bridge, private shuttles are said to take people between points. Most importantly, it integrates the three territories and gives life to the “One China” policy. 

China, a developing country once plagued with oppression, inequality, disease, famine and poverty, has now emerged as a nation that has been able to tackle these challenges and seen herself emerge into a developed nation. While this development has had a number of contributing factors, it is useful to point out here how “people centred infrastructure” has played a role in this development.

As we enter a new phase of globalisation and with the onset of the fourth industrial revolution, President Xi, at the thirteenth National People’s Congress in 2017, introduced the Xi Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era. We may suggest that a number of the principles of the Xi Thought pertain directly to the quest of people-centred development on which people-centred infrastructure is built. These principles are: principle two, committing to a people-centred approach;  principle five, seeing that the people run the country; principle nine, ensuring harmony between human and nature; and principle ten, pursuing an holistic approach to national security. 

Meeting with 13 African heads of state on the side-lines of his first BRICS Summit in South Africa in 2013, President Xi emphasised the need for investment in infrastructure on the African continent. This is not far from the emphasis placed on the investment into infrastructure by the African Union’s Agenda 2063. 

By using itself as a roadmap, China, President Xi pointed out, wishes to ensure that African people themselves are interconnected and that they are able to connect with each other. For example, it now takes a Kenyan, living in Nairobi, four hours to visit friends and family in Mombasa; a journey that previously entailed fourteen hours of travel. A railway project which involved investment of US$4billion. There are plans to extend this railway to Uganda, Rwanda and South Sudan; thereby connecting the peoples of east Africa.

Other examples exist of China’s intervention of ensuring that people to people connectivity in Africa thrives. A number of express highways have been initiated and built. For example, the ones between Adama and Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, the US$476 million express highway between Kampala and Entebbe in Uganda, and the Omakange and Ruacana road upgrade in Namibia. Many more examples exist on China’s assistance in Africa to ensure that the people of Africa are better connected. 

South Africa has an enormous challenge with public transport. E-tolls continue to dominate Gauteng news. Traffic congestion, parking in central business districts, road accidents, amongst many others continue to bog down our road infrastructure in particular. All these challenges would be greatly addressed if we had a clean, reliable and efficient public transport system; both rail and bus. 

While hardly any of the examples listed above pertain to public transport within a city but are rather mega infrastructural developments, they do speak to a people-centred approach to infrastructure. Moving people, whether it is to work, school, tourism, etc is the principle on which these mega projects are adopted and managed. For China, it is people before profit. 

At the same time, what a people centred approach to development, and in this case infrastructure, does, is that it mitigates alienation. People have a sense of ownership of the infrastructure. The clients or commuters know that they are the prime focus of the those managing these services and that the property is not the primary concern. With the elimination of alienation, it is now not only people before profit but people before property as well.

Sadly, South Africa’s public transport system is not a people centred operation. Even the last mega projects, the Gautrain and the roads in Gauteng, have sadly placed profit and “sustainability” as the core priorities. Yet as China would testify, even with their national airline carriers, the more people you have using these, the more sustainable the project becomes. 

In particular, PRASA and Metrorail have had a challenge with the onslaught of attacks against its railway infrastructure, especially in the Western Cape. Unfortunately, there is little to no evidence to suggest that either PRASA or Metrorail has adopted a people-centred approach to their operations. Metrorail has appeared to treat its passengers with disdain and utter disrespect. As a result, not only does one literally put one’s life in harms way when entering a train carriage but you are almost guaranteed to experience pitiful service even before getting into that carriage. 

Take for example that in the wake of these train attacks, Metrorail, together with national, provincial and local government, launched the railway enforcement unit in the City of Cape Town. According to an EWN news report, the priority of this unit is not the safety of commuters but rather “protecting rail infrastructure and stabilising train services.”

The impression created at the launch of the railway enforcement was that the focus would be more on securing the infrastructure than on the safety of passengers. Clearly the safety of passengers needs to be at the centre of the service provided by Prasa. The deployment of these enforcement officers must make the commuters safe. This will begin to restore confidence, along with the introduction of new trains and the arrest and prosecution of those responsible for destroying public infrstaructure.  

What is required is a people-centred approach. More pressure on PRASA and Metrorail needs to be exerted to ensure that passengers are searched, go through metal detectors before they enter the platform.  This will give all passengers a greater sense of security knowing that no weapons are being carried into the trains.

Public transport is not designed for the poor or working class only. It is meant to serve everyone so that they do not get into their cars and take to the roads, pay etolls, cause congestion or accidents. Public transport is meant to get everyone, rich and poor alike, off the roads and into buses and trains. As a divided country in services, it would seem that South Africa needs more than just bridges. It needs an attitude from those managing our public transport system not to simply maintain old legacies but to build new ones for the people. For this is what people centred development is ultimately about. 

Cameron Dugmore  is an ANC MPL and serves on the Portfolio Committee on Transport and Public Works in the Western Cape Legislature. 

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