“Unsafe and inefficient public transport endangers our lives”


20 black working-class women from Orange Farm and Soweto call for urgent improvements to the public transport system. Sinqobile Akin and Andiswa Kona report.

Apartheid legacy

Public transport in South Africa has its fair share of challenges many of which are linked to South Africa’s colonial and apartheid history. Black people were forced to live far away from the areas where they were employed. Apartheid policies that were based on racial segregation privileged white people who lived in developed areas with easy access to transportation and adequate infrastructure. Black people relied on transport options that were sometimes costly and unsafe.

This article focuses on the experiences of 20 black working-class women from Soweto and Orange Farm in Johannesburg who commute on different forms of transport from their homes to work and who depend on the public transport system. Between 30 and 50 years old, they earned below the minimum wage of R3500 per month, working as domestic workers or in administrative roles.

Problems experienced

Trains, buses and taxis are the most preferred modes of transport that black women in townships use. While these modes are cost effective and easily accessible, overcrowding remains the biggest challenge. Overcrowding is caused by the delays of trains and buses as there are challenges with schedules.

  • Inefficient scheduling

An inefficiency in scheduling leads to unpredictability of public transport. This can “place me at the risk of theft or murder, as my offices are near an industrial area and there are no security guards at the train platforms after hours,” one interviewee told us.

Due to a lack of public transport scheduling, black working-class women often have to wake up much earlier to catch the first bus, train or taxi to get them to the workplace. Their safety is often compromised because they walk long distances to access public transport. This is common in townships where the walking and waiting times for public transport are long.

  • Crime

Our interviewees expressed a great deal of concern over the issue of crime. They indicated that they were vulnerable to criminals because of the unpredictability of public transport, which forced them sometimes to have to walk in the dark to arrive at work on time. “I could be walking to get a taxi, and someone could be hiding in the bushes, and I cannot see them”, said one interviewee.

The most common types of crimes in public transport are ‘pickpocketing, bag snatching and jewellery theft, with more severe crimes like rape, assault and murder’. These crimes can happen at public transport locations such as train stations and bus stops.

When women wait longer to access public transport due to a lack of clear scheduling, they also become vulnerable to gender based violence (GBV). The public transport industry is known for its culture of abuse that places women at risk of violence. (Eagle and Kwele, 2019) Verbal abuse from the taxi drivers affected how safe they felt during the trip. An interviewee from Orange Farm mentioned that “some taxi drivers stop to buy alcohol and I cannot say anything because I am a woman. They can look at your body and promise to beat you up”. In some cases, these taxi drivers are drug users, and this affects how women passengers are treated.

  • Anxiety

Anxiety that arises out of uncertainty with the transport system and safety risks can affect women’s performance at the workplace.

Research shows that physical strain experienced by workers whilst commuting affected their ability to function effectively compared to individuals that do not share similar challenges. This view was supported by our respondents.

Personal safety concerns also cause anxiety in women as they travel to the workplace. “I would rather be late for work than take taxis I have been intimidated in,” said one respondent.

Working women also worry about their children’s safety travelling to and from school, causing them emotional stress. Participants, especially those who collect children from school and day-care, revealed that they worried about transport-related issues towards the end of the day. The fear for their own safety when travelling in the evening was heightened when  mothers who collect their children had to stand in queues.

  • Transport inefficiency

Workers are often sanctioned harshly at work for being late for work even though they leave their homes earlier than normal. Having to justify being late for work because of transport inefficiency is equally frustrating as supervisors or bosses are unable to relate or be understanding of the inconvenience experienced.

In addition, frequent breakdowns or malfunction cause them to be late for work leading to warnings and possible dismissal which adds to their anxiety.

Moreover, black working-class women are more likely to be in menial and precarious jobs. When they arrive at the workplace, after overcoming multiple transport challenges, they are already exhausted and unlikely to be as productive as others who do not face such hurdles.  

“In the train there are no seats especially in the morning and we stand until you reach your destination. By the time you leave the train, you are already tired and you still have to work. I work as a cleaner, so I’m always on my feet. I get home very tired,” said one of the interviewees.

  • Making up for lost time

Due to women arriving late for work frequently because of public transport problems, employers have created a way for them to make up for lost time. Workers must choose between staying late to ensure that tasks for the day are complete, or they forfeit their tea or lunch breaks. This disadvantages the workers and violates their rights. Participants agreed that they would perform better had they not been concerned about transport.

  • Women’s care responsibilities at home

During interviews, participants described their morning routine, before they head out to work. They must wake up early to clean the home and surrounding environment, care for children, the elderly, the sick, ensure availability of water for the day, and prepare food including their own lunch, and that of their children of school-going age, and any other employed men and or unemployed persons.

Supervisors and bosses need to be considerate of the care responsibilities that women have that might cause lateness at the workplace.

  • Looking after themselves

While participants struggle with an unreliable and unsafe public transport system, they themselves have started to look after their own safety. Some participants ask their family members to fetch them from the drop-off points after dark. Others said they prefer walking in groups when they catch a train or bus. Black working women have asked Community Policing Forum (CPF) members to accompany them to pick up points.

New technology to the rescue

The Gauteng Province, in conjunction with the City of Joburg has been implementing policies towards smart cities. This is being done with the hope of increasing efficiency in the public transport system. A smart city should be able to keep up with travel demand as stated by Integrated Transport Master Plan (ITMP25). However, if there are challenges with infrastructure for technology improvements, this might be a challenge for black working-class women that need real time schedules if there are breakdowns, traffic congestion or any unexpected delays.

In countries such as Brazil, new technology has provided prospects for renewed expansion, particularly through Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS). This has allowed commuters to have access to smart bus monitoring systems that give commuters real time reports on public transport.

South Africa can learn from Brazil about how they use technology to ensure that public transport is more efficient. Furthermore, black working-class women still need further access to information and resources about technology for them to be able to be part of smart cities with efficient transport services. It is possible for technology to improve transport services but improvements on infrastructure still need to be made.

Recommendations on improving public transport

Developing sustainable transport systems in South Africa starts by addressing concerns about safety. Participants believe that if crime is not addressed around public transport within Soweto and Orange farm, this will lead to job losses for people who rely on public transport.

These are just some of the recommendations that study participants made on how public transport can be improved:

  • Include black working women in the process to find solutions to the challenges that they face in the existing public transport system so they can highlight the changes required to ensure safety and ensure access to an efficient transport system. Without this, any attempt to introduce ‘smart cities’ in the context of spatial injustice and persistent socio-economic, racial, gendered and class inequalities will just amplify existing inequalities.
  • Provide reliable modes of transport which heed the demands of commuters through immediate responsiveness to complaints.
  • Investigate the possibility of an integrated ticket policy: one ticket can be used on the different modes of transport with discounts for students, workers and pensioners.
  • The Fourth Industrial Revolution threatens the jobs of women; the challenges in the public transport industry can be used as new opportunities for women. Black working women ought to be trained for new careers in technology and public transportation.


Participants recommended the following:

  • The minibus or taxi industry should have staff members who are knowledgeable and who can conduct the business in a proper way.
  • Train drivers how to speak and treat their passengers, especially as it relates to safety and GBV. Training could also include how to deal with difficult passengers and resolve conflicts in the taxi.
  • More formalised education for taxi drivers, for example the taxi driver occupational certificate from the South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA).
  • The minibus industry should be formalised and made into respectable profession,
  • Taxi associations should give taxi drivers name tags as a form of identification for passengers in the taxi. This will allow passengers to know who is taking them to work, and make them feel safer. Reporting of bad driving and retrieving of lost or stolen goods can be dealt with a lot faster and more easily.


Participants recommended the following:

  • PRASA should provide more trains to address the current challenges.
  • Fix damaged and vandalised trains, especially windows. “Without windows, when it’s windy or raining, we get cold and wet inside the train while going to work,” said one of the participants.

Respondents all agreed that better service delivery of public transport is needed.

Sinqobile Akin and Andiswa Kona are Research Assistants at the Centre for Education Rights and Transformation at the University of Johannesburg.

Akin and Kona would like to thank Dr Ibrahim Steyn for his assistance in putting this article together.

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Sinqobile Akin and Andiswa Kona
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