THROUGHOUT this week, I picked up and dropped off a worker's child at the Redhill informal settlement, taking her to and from school in Simon's Town, a distance of about 8km. She usually uses a minibus taxi.
Along the road, dozens of people walked to and from work on foot. On Tuesday, I gave a lift to two middle-aged women and dropped them just outside Simon's Town, as they work in Fish Hoek, which is about 10km further. Both of them had walked the road to Fish Hoek and back to Redhill on Monday because no one wanted to give them a lift.
The two women said they can't do without their daily wages and are afraid of losing their jobs. One is a domestic worker, the other is a cleaner at a chain store.
If you're one of the middle-class people who have been gloating on social media and elsewhere in the last few days about how great it was to drive around Cape Town and its surroundings without taxis, or how the taxis should all be banned and the drivers locked up, you're either completely insensitive or totally ignorant.
South Africa, and the economy, cannot function without the minibus taxi industry. There are about a quarter of a million of these taxis on our roads, providing work directly or indirectly for more than a million people.
According to a 2014/15 survey, 60% of South African households use minibus taxis as their primary form of transport — this figure is probably higher today after the collapse of commuter train services. The industry's own statistics show that taxis transport 15 million commuters daily.
Since deregulation in 1988, taxis have become an integral part of our national culture, of black entrepreneurship, actually of our national heartbeat.
But it is also a R90 billion-a-year industry. Large parts of it are lawless and behave like a super-crime syndicate, an almost typical mafia that readily resorts to violence.
There are strong reasons to suspect the taxi industry has been responsible for attacks on buses and trains in the past to serve their own interests.
In this week's strike, the main route to Cape Town International Airport was blocked, and a number of hospitals and clinics had to close their doors. Five people have died so far, many buses have been set on fire, and other damage has occurred.
There is a proven and strong symbiosis between the industry and the ANC, meaning an “interaction between two different organisms living in close physical association, typically to the advantage of both". The major taxi associations wield immense influence, especially in KwaZulu-Natal but also in other provinces.
There are even a few taxi billionaires, such as Buti Mkhonza of BJM Coaches in Gauteng with more than 150 taxis, 80 buses and multiple filling stations, and the Gcaba brothers from Umlazi in KZN, known as Abafana BakaGcaba, with more than 500 taxis and buses. Many of the wealthy taxi owners are significant ANC donors.
The ANC government's laissez-faire approach towards the taxi industry over the years has led the taxi bosses to view themselves as above the law. The police's inability or unwillingness to address taxi-related murders and violence has contributed to this.
Prof Andrew Kerr from the University of Cape Town says his analysis of official statistics indicates that 70% of taxi drivers are paid less than the minimum wage of R20 an hour, and 75% of them work longer than the permissible 55 hours a week.
The government now recognises the South African National Taxi Council (Santaco) as the official representative of the industry.
Two members of the cabinet have become involved in the drama surrounding the taxi strike in Cape Town and its surroundings.
The Minister of Police, Bheki Cele, was at the meeting where Santaco decided on the strike. He did condemn the subsequent violence but reserved his harshest words for the “arrogant" DA, which governs in Cape Town and the Western Cape.
The Minister of Transport, Sindisiwe Chikunga, also sharply criticised the DA government and even “ordered" that the impounded taxis be returned immediately.
“The national minister is listening to us very well," said Santaco's Nceba Enge at a press conference on Wednesday.
Similar to how Jacob Zuma and his faction caused chaos and looting in Zuma's name in July 2021, Santaco leaders initially denied responsibility for the violence among their members, attributing the actions to “frustration" and lack of control.
This appears just a little too much like the same modus operandi of July 2021: inciting public violence and even looting as political pressure.
Is there a possibility that the ANC wants to destabilise the Western Cape before next year's election? It's certainly not beyond the ANC, but there is no information to confirm this is the case.
According to the Cape Town mayor, Geordin Hill-Lewis, the initial meeting involving the city, the province and Santaco before the strike began was “productive", and he had hoped it would resolve the dispute.
However, just a day later, Hill-Lewis said Santaco suddenly made entirely new demands, such as a complete moratorium on impounding taxis and special lanes on highways for taxis.
I get the impression Santaco wanted to provoke a confrontation with the City of Cape Town and the province. It tried to bully them through mass actions, as it has done in other metros and provinces.
Cape Town and the Western Cape are the only metro and province where the taxi industry doesn't always get its way, where the law is enforced rigorously.
This is one of the reasons Cape Town is the best-managed metro and the Western Cape the best-managed province.
For the DA administrations, capitulating to intimidation was not an option. And there, the two bulls in the kraal locked horns.
The otherwise phlegmatic Hill-Lewis, a natural peacemaker, stood his ground and declared he would not negotiate with Santaco while the violence continued.
Much of the anger from the taxi industry, the ANC and the EFF was then directed towards the tough-talking mayoral committee member for safety, JP Smith. This was also reflected in media commentary.
Smith is indeed somewhat abrasive, but he is also the most effective mayoral committee member for safety in the country, a hard and dedicated worker. Law and order in South Africa today are not for the faint-hearted.
A few years ago, I had a problem in my neighbourhood and escalated it to his office. He was there himself within an hour, and only upon his arrival did he find out I am a journalist.
“Good cop" Hill-Lewis might undertake to calm “bad cop" Smith in his negotiations with Santaco.
Smith's reported statement earlier this week that he would impound 25 taxis for every burned bus was fighting talk that he will have to retract if he did say it. Taxis may only be impounded according to existing legislation, not as revenge.
The demand by Chikunga and Santaco that all impounded taxis be released immediately is nonsensical. What responsible authority would allow an unroadworthy public transport vehicle back on the streets?
It was noteworthy that President Cyril Ramaphosa limited his comments on the taxi strike (during his Women's Day speech) to Santaco's actions, with no reference to Hill-Lewis or premier Alan Winde.
And yesterday, the cabinet said in a media release that Chikunga was instructed to ensure any taxi operating in violation of the law should be taken off the roads.
Santaco announced last night that its strike was called off after they received proposals from the city and the province. The organisation's Western Cape spokesperson, Mandla Hermanus, said it “appears" as if the two sides had found common ground on the fundamental issues. Outstanding issues will be taken back to the joint task force.
I'm sure hundreds of thousands of workers and other commuters will be very relieved after a rough, violent week. It is clear, though, that it could have been avoided.
It would probably have been worth the sacrifice if the opportunity offered by the crisis was seized to start a fundamental re-look at the entire regulation of the taxi industry.
But with a general election less than a year away, I'm not holding my breath.
♦ VWB ♦
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