New books on popular transport in East Africa.
Matteo Rizzo, Taken for a Ride: grounding neoliberalism, precarious labour, and public transport in an African metropolis. Oxford: Oxford University Press (hb 53 [pounds sterling]-978 0 19 879424 0; pb 25 [pounds sterling]-978 0 19 883905 7). 2017, vi + 215 pp.
Africa's growing cities and towns are drawing more global and local attention, with urbanization increasingly impinging upon existing balances of power, disrupting economic dynamics and intensifying public policy challenges such as inequality, air pollution and high fatalities from crashes and congestion. These trends are occurring amidst growing anxiety about climate change, with cities facing increased risks and vulnerabilities including rising temperatures and sea levels. At the same time, city building is generating stronger demand for infrastructure and services, with African countries being seen as the final frontier for capital investment. A good part of the wealth created in these so-called 'emerging economies' is concentrated in cities and towns that continue to draw in rural populations. How these forces play out will no doubt have profound implications for the future of African countries and the world.
The politics around critical infrastructures and services in African cities is becoming more intense and contested, and there is a growing interest in urban public transport systems in particular. Transport systems are critical for boosting economic productivity yet they also provide the vast majority of people with the everyday mobility needed to live and survive, and to connect to rural areas and markets. These systems tend to consist of varied semi-formal bus/minibus operations (sometimes called 'paratransit' or popular/artisanal transport). Predominantly owned by large numbers of small businesses or cooperatives and a major employer, these indigenous mobility systems face mounting pressures from public transport reform processes. These processes implicate global capital as well as green, climate and public transport advocacy networks, as public transport improvements are a clear way to simultaneously address multiple problems.
This context makes critical historically and empirically grounded perspectives on urban transport systems particularly important and timely. Matatu: a history of popular transportation in Nairobi by Kenda Mutongi and Taken for a Ride: grounding neoliberalism, precarious labour, and public transport in an African metropolis by Matteo Rizzo are welcome deep dives into the political, economic and social dynamics of these systems (matatus in Kenya and daladalas in Tanzania). Both books demonstrate how minibus systems emerged as a form of African entrepreneurship in a context of public transport service provision failure. This failure originated in colonial times when African subjects were deliberately marginalized. Following independence, formal public bus companies had a brief flourishing yet were never really able to meet demand. In the 1980s, structural adjustment and poor management aggravated the challenge and matatus/daladalas came to dominate transport provision.
Mutongi helps us understand how the matatu system in Nairobi evolved out of colonial oppression, postcolonial state failure and profound unemployment pressures to provide transport services for the majority in Nairobi. In the process, owners and workers have generated a significant form of economic, cultural and political power. She adeptly chronicles how matatu owners have used this power to shut down the city through strikes at pivotal moments in order to negotiate the limits of regulation and state harassment (the police are a constant source of extraction and trouble for drivers and owners). The sector also played a critical, but often missed, historical role in the resistance to the authoritarian regime of Daniel arap Moi. Through rich interviews with key owners, drivers and passengers, as well as archival research, Mutongi shows how these countless daily negotiations help make matatus central to the economic, political, social and cultural life of the city. The youth in particular have 'succeeded in turning the matatu into a source of identity, into a way of life, complete with its own music and language' (p. 214). The practice of owners paying substantial sums to artists to 'pimp' their matatus only underscores this point, as does the rise of matatu culture and art groups. Such artists have developed elaborate motifs and diverse messaging that characterize Nairobi's stunningly colourful matatuscape.
Rizzo takes on a similarly important yet neglected dimension, namely the dismal conditions of labour, which Mutongi recognizes but does not focus on adequately, emphasizing cooperation more than some of the profound conflicts between labour and owners in the sector. Rizzo notes how all too often these systems are celebrated as a form of entrepreneurship in the 'informal economy'. Yet, in the process, the different interests of owners and drivers are elided, leading commentators to neglect the exploitation of drivers, touts and others. This omission even extends into official statistics. Rizzo's major contribution is thus to investigate how labour fares in Dar es Salaam's public transport system (p. 14) and to demonstrate how labour conditions are 'central to understanding why daladala operate the way they do, with all their accompanying tensions' (p. 53). He systematically follows the fates of several drivers over time, through embedded observation and in-depth interviews, an approach that allows him to record their limited upward mobility and high levels of vulnerability as they move from job to job.
Mutongi and Rizzo both take to task analyses that overly celebrate these minibus systems as examples of entrepreneurship that make African cities 'work' as well as those that vilify them as systems run by criminal or rogue elements, providing poor and often dangerous services. Instead, they encourage empirically grounded, nuanced analysis that illuminates the multifaceted nature of these complex, historically fashioned mobility systems. They also show that, within the sector itself, there are efforts by owners and drivers to improve conditions. In Nairobi, Mutongi shows how owners formed an association to negotiate more strongly with government over regulations. However, because she does not look more deeply into class dynamics, she tends to portray driver and owner interests as often seeming to coincide around shielding the industry from regulation interestingly, with passenger protest but also with their collaboration. In contrast, despite instances of owner-driver cooperation, Rizzo's analysis paints a picture of clear driver exploitation by owners. In this case, drivers have been forced to organize and align with formal labour unions in order to obtain service contracts with better conditions. A 2018 labour assessment in Nairobi by the International Transport Workers' Federation and the University of Nairobi bolsters Rizzo's analysis of driver exploitation and the desire of drivers for better regulation and interventions to address their problematic conditions.
Both accounts reflect concerns about the potentially negative impacts that global forces are having on this deeply rooted industry. Mutongi focuses on the fact that 'the matatu industry has always operated independent of the good intentions of foreign intervention of NGOs' (p. 260), a point that demonstrates the general neglect of transport among global and local civil society concerned with poverty. She quotes Kimutai, the long-serving head of the matatu owners' association, as saying that 'the matatu industry is the only industry that has not been infiltrated by foreign aid workers and that is why the industry has survived and thrived for nearly forty-five years. The matatu industry is a seriously Kenyan industry' (p. 249).
However, it is hard to see how the very severe problems within this sector might be addressed without civil society engagement and collective political action, including labour action. In fact, one might argue that the widespread failure of local and global advocacy networks to focus on problems in the transportation sector has enabled the status quo. Without stronger pressures for change, including the need for smart subsidies and respect for labour rights--both profoundly neglected elements of public transport reform--service improvements are unlikely. With the rise of concerns about climate change and public health in the sector, global NGOs such as Humanity & Inclusion and World Resources Institute are becoming increasingly engaged and are collaborating positively with both city government and emerging civil society groups, including resident associations, to discuss needed reform. Not all NGOs are vectors of global capitalist and neoliberal forces, as Mutongi seems to imply.
Rizzo embeds his entire analysis within a framework of global forces, arguing that 'from the early 1980s to the present, Tanzania's wider political economy, including changing policies in the public transport system, can be understood as embodying certain logics of neoliberalism' (p. 17). Dar es Salaam's shift from public to private provision of transport thus 'mirror[s] that of every major African city' (p. 17). In his view, informalization is thus less a creative way to make the city work than a business strategy to avoid the costs of labour rights. Indeed, global discussions of public transport reform pay scant attention to the conditions of labour, even though poor labour conditions can be directly traced to major problems such as road safety issues and problems in passenger service. Instead, the focus tends to be on technology, specifically bus rapid transit (BRT)--a system that provides dedicated lanes for large buses and which often comes with promises of better jobs for drivers and possible investment opportunities for minibus owners. Rizzo's final chapter is a hard-hitting critique of BRT as a tool of neoliberalism and as a vehicle for banks, construction companies and private transport service operators to access Africa's private transport market (p. 150).
This analysis, while raising very real and important concerns with global capital in the African transport sector, downplays some of the deep problems of the political economies and authoritarian politics in both Kenya and Tanzania as obstacles to wider improvements. It is a well-known but inconvenient fact that politicians, bureaucrats and police officers have critical interests in the sector creating profound conflicts of interest. This makes regulation in the public interest very difficult and also keeps service poor and labour exploitation in place. BRT is often portrayed by proponents such as the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy as a top-down transformative disruption in this institutional set-up. However, in practice, BRT projects often become very expensive attempts to use technology to solve what in essence is a political set of problems. This also means that these projects become part of existing power dynamics and hence often fail to deliver promised changes. As Rizzo analyses, the Tanzanian government successfully resisted having a foreign operator but the result has been political capture. Formed out of existing daladala operators, the company chosen by the government to operate the BRT appears to be linked to powerful figures. Without proper accountability over revenues, service has declined, triggering recent protests by residents who initially benefited from better services. This constant repressive extraction and negotiation by political actors is a problem for change that might have been addressed more in both books.
Overall, it is hardly surprising to see both political capture and bottom- up resistance to top-down foreign projects such as the BRT. Popular transport has deep roots and involves many sunk costs by owners. The sector provides large numbers of jobs for artists, mechanics, sign painters, cleaners, vendors, terminal managers, touts and drivers, as aptly described by Rizzo and Mutongi, people who might be among those left out of the benefits of this approach to needed change. There remains an open and important question for further research: how and with what impacts will transport users, labour, minibus owners and national and city governments in Africa negotiate both among themselves and with the diverse global forces coalescing around public transport reform on the continent? Internal societal demands are growing for better, safer services, especially for women and children and people with disabilities, and international concern is mounting with regard to the kind of cities Africa will build and their human and environmental impacts. Change is needed. Key questions are: who should lead this change? How should it happen? And what might it look like in different places? Both books contribute to pushing forward much-needed critical debate by helping us rethink and reimagine alternative public transport futures for African cities, futures that should start with the lived realities and aspirations of the majority of citizens, including the poor and middle classes, who currently--for better or worse--rely fundamentally on these deeply rooted and complex minibus systems.
Jacqueline M. Klopp
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|Author:||Klopp, Jacqueline M.|
|Date:||Nov 1, 2019|
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