Uganda: The Ideological Emptiness of Kampala's Transport System

There is a strong connection between public service transport and the economy.

It actually follows that the chaos on the roads represents the chaos in the economy (and a country's politics). Let me explain. The desire to have an efficient mass transport system became more urgent in the wake of industrialization, which also meant urbanization.

There was urgent need to efficiently ferry labourers from their homes to factories or plantation farms. The principle is that labour - the workers - have to move faster than capital - the owners of money. To this end, countries that have a chaotic public transport arrangement cannot even dream moving into "middle income." It is loose talk.

Because of their numbers, and being the actual creators of value as their sweat is what becomes commodity - and excess sweat is stolen as profit - every minute lost on the road is lost value.

In the interest of maximizing productivity, industrial societies used to build labour lines to house their workers. Finding the workers houses costly, they settled for making sure an efficient transport system existed across the neighbourhood.

This is the economic history of the London underground, and the New York subway, and several light trains, and bus services in major cities across the capitalist world.

It is only the men and women with money - or actually, the thieves of labour - that can afford the time and luxury to sit in their airconditioned vehicles and wait in traffic. East Africa has one example where this logic has been embraced: (ironically, former socialist) Tanzania.

In Tanzania's capital, Dar-es-Salaam, buses commonly known as Mwendokasi ferry labourers from their lodgings to the different places of work. These are double-cabin buses that carry over 200 people each.

The World Bank estimated that each would transport 280,000 persons every hour on key routes. A single bus is expected to ferry 400,000 people a day. If you come early enough, you may find yourself a seat, but many people stand. These buses, have special lanes and move as fast as 50kmph - in the center of town! As would be expected, in a city of close to seven million people, these buses are often overcrowded during peak hours.

Users pride themselves in the speed with which they move, and the cost of the fares that are set and manned by the government (or is it Dar es Salaam City Council?).

If there were to be rise in fares, this would be a policy matter, and not an issue of market speculation or the craftiness of extortionist single businessmen.

With government playing in the transport industry, they are able to actively help in decongesting the city but also collect revenue - and this is lucrative business. Please note that there are also private-owned minibuses - called dala-dala - and motorcycle taxis (boda-bodas).

Aboard a Mwendokasi bus sometime back in 2018, I was struck by the beautiful picture of Dar-es-Salaam's poor workers easily moving across the city.

Their wealthy compatriots - supposedly their bosses - on the other hand, would be seen idly looking on in their air-conditioned automobiles helplessly stuck traffic. It was quite a spectacle. Interestingly, quite a number of Dar-es-Salaam dwellers with vehicles leave them home and hop onto Mwendokasi.

Sadly, in Kampala, this logic is upside down. The men and women with money rush forward in their Japanese-made thirdhand vehicles as their workers stand on the roadsides waiting for the dilapidated and scrappy matatus.

In some more pornographic cases, some of these fellas with money even hire lead vehicles with sirens to kick their workers off the road for them to ride ahead. The adrenalin to feel important has blinded them to the ways in which wealth or value is created.

The even sadder part is that these (mostly) regime-blessed pseudo-intellectuals pride in this crooked logic. There is a man I know - a chief executive - who drives a four-wheeler to his offices, and has a penchant for posting videos of his early morning punctual rides to the office - even under rain.

The videos are often "humorously" captioned with messages scolding his labourers not to come late. He chastens them to follow his example.

It might come along as jest, but it represents an entrenched logic. The danger is that the logic does not only exploit labourers further - by leaving them to extortionist taxi operators - it also renders them less productive - as they are conditioned to structural lateness.

Equally uneducated is the logic that has embraced motorcycle taxis, which emerged as a makeshift temporary response to the transport mess in Kampala. Boda-boda have sadly become a permanent part of Kampala - and so is the permanence of the chaos that comes with them.

The author is a PhD fellow at Makerere Institute of Social Research.

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