On the buses: fifty years ago today
Fifty years ago today, on Wednesday 8 March 1961, I joined the Johannesburg Transport Department as a learner bus conductor.
The Johannesburg Transport Department was a new name for what had previously been known as Johannesburg Municipal Tramways, which began in 1906 when the first electric trams were introduced, replacing the old horse-drawn trams which had been run by a private company. But the trams were being phased out, so they decided to change the name, but members of the running staff still referred to it as the JMT, and the letters JMT still appeared on the sides of some buses until they were repainted.
There were six of us in the class, which met in the training school at the trolley bus garage in Fordsburg, and it started off with the instructor, Mr Venter, showing us how to make out cash and journey waybills, and in the afternoon we learned how to punch tickets, only he would not let me do it left-handed. But eventually he relented when he say I could punch tickets much faster that way. We had bundles of loose tickets, which we held together with knicker elastic (broekrek), and a bell punch which punched a hole to indicate the stage where the passenger boarded. And the auditors could count all the punched bits to check against the number of tickets sold on the waybill.
The starting wage for a driver or conductor was 59c per hour, or R25.96 per week for a 44 hour week. It was a 6-day week of an average of 7 hours 20 minutes per day. Fares had been simplified with the introduction of decimal currency the previous month: 5c for 1 stage, 7.5c for 3-5 stages, and 10c for 6 stages and over. There were also higher fares for longer journeys, but they were undertaken only by one-man operated single-deckers going to Randburg. The simplification meant that old coins or new could be used for the bus fare, 6d or 5c. A cup of tea or coffee in a local cafe cost 5c, and an omelet and chips cost 35c.
The next two days at conductor school we practised selling each other tickets and giving each other change. There was a platform with seats on to simulate a moving bus, and we practised on that. At lunch time every day we went to the gym up the road at the tram sheds for half an hour. We had books of fares and stages for all the routes in the city and we had to learn them off by heart, so there would be no undercharging or overcharging. We learnt how to fill in accident and incident reports.
We were also taught the culture of the Department. My fellow-trainees were all Afrikaans speaking, and since it was the time of apartheid, buses were segregated. Most were for whites only, but up to five “Asiatics or Coloureds” could be allowed to occupy the back seats upstairs, provided there were no whites sitting in them. But there were some routes for “Non-Europeans” only, and some for “Asiatics and Coloureds” only, to Bertrams and Crown mines. The instructor told us we were never to refer to black clients as “kaffirs”. That was a strict no-no. In the JMT they referred to black clients as “kadallies”, I assume after Clements Kadalie, a prominent black trade unionist of the 1920s.
After a week we were given our own kit – a change bag, a ticket punch, a pair of nippers, bundles of tickets, and a practice note. We had to do two trips as learners, under an experienced conductor, on every route, and he would sign the practice note. For the first four days we were under conductors who had qualified as instructors, and after that we could be freelancers.
So on Wednesday 15th March 1961 I went to the Trojan depot in the south of the city, early in the morning, and took the fares on two trips to South Hills under the watchful eye of instructing conductor Tommy Crowne. Tommy Crowne had a spreadover shift, which meant that he worked in the morning and evening peaks, and had about four hours off in the middle of the day. On the third day, Friday 17th March, I took my practice note in the break and worked on the Malvern and Bez Valley trams, which was the last day of scheduled service. The next day they were to be replaced by oil buses, and there would be a special commemorative run to mark the end of the tram service. So I can truly say that I was the last tram conductor ever to join the JMT, and indeed the last tram conductor in South Africa, since all the other cities had closed their tram services long before.
On the 18th April, having filled my practice note, four of us did the final test. There was a written test and an oral test, in which we had to be able to give the stages on any route. And the following day we did a practical test. Having passed, we were given cap badges and numbers, and were measured for uniforms. The cap badges had numbers in order of seniority, with drivers having odd numbers and conductors even numbers. So driver 1 was the most senior driver, and conductor 2 was the most senior conductor. I was 1456, which meant I was the 728th conductor, at the bottom of the pecking order. The pecking order was important, because every six months there was a reallocation of shifts, with those with the lowest numbers getting the first choice, and those who had just started, like me, were “casual” – each day we were told which shift we would be doing the next day, usually for someone who was sick or on holiday. And on our day off we still had to go in to see what shift we were allocated for the following day — the scheduling section were far to busy to answer such queries over the phone. Nowadays such things are probably handled by computers. Back then personal computers were unheard of. On one route the bus passed a computer bureau, and we could see row upon row of boxes the size of stationery cabinets, with large reels of tape that jerked backwards and forwards, and the whole roomful of them probably had less capacity than a pocket flash drive today.
I worked on the JMT for the next two years, and when I turned 21 I trained as a driver as well, which took another month out of work with a practice note, driving every route, even if one knew them as a conductor. With the trolley buses one had to remember the location of insulators, and how to get to the right stand for the trip. After passing out I went back to my picked shift as a conductor, but being able to drive gave more opportunities for overtime.
In 1963 I resigned from the JMT and went to study at the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg, but as soon as I had written my last exam in November, I went back to Johannesburg, and drove buses during the long vac. I preferred driving, because when one’s shift was over one could go home, whereas conductors still had to count their takings, enter up their cash waybills and pay in.
And when I went to study in the UK in 1966, I worked for 6 months as a driver with London Transport. One of the perks of the job was free travel on town and country buses and the Underground, so I used the opportunity to explore London and environs.
See also my trolley bus pages.
And here is a short history of Johannesburg trams.