South Africa

ANALYSIS

The anatomy of a deadly Cape taxi conflict — or when regulatory failings, violence and blame-shifting collide

Golden Arrow buses stop alongside the N2 at Borchards Quarry entrance to Nyanga on 21 July 2021 to transport Cape Town workers who stood in long lines in pouring early-morning rain amid dispruption by ongoing taxi violence. (Photo: Gallo Images / Brenton Geach)

One route. Only six issued operating licences. And thousands of commuters desperately looking for transport to work, study and elsewhere as train services have collapsed.

That’s the backdrop to the flare-up of deadly violence over the Mbekweni, Paarl, and Bellville, Cape Town B97 route between the Congress of Democratic Taxi Associations (Codeta) and Cape Amalgamated Taxi Association (Cata). 

But the tensions have been simmering for about three years — and ripple into other Boland communities such as Ceres and Wellington, but also Somerset West in the Strand. 

Route B97 has now been closed for two months — the stick to get Cata and Codeta to cease hostilities. The carrot is a series of interventions that unfolded over the past 10 days or so. 

Crucially, both Cata and Codeta say they are committed to a ceasefire. As both point fingers at officialdom’s bias and regulatory ineffectiveness — each with their own spin — they’ve proposed so-called route compromises to settle differences. 

Cata proposed letting go of all but one of the 27 routes in the Paarl-Cape Town area — that Mbekweni-Paarl-Bellville route. Or share everything 50:50. Codeta proposed only its taxis would load in Paarl, while Cata would get exclusive rights such as at the Bellville rank. 

That emerged in the peace accord treaty seen by Daily Maverick that came out of a series of meetings called by United Democratic Movement (UDM) leader Bantu Holomisa and Saftu General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi. 

“We did our job… We have written to the minister. We are ready to meet,” said Holomisa on Wednesday. 

The taxi peace deal facilitated by the UDM and Saftu succeeded more, as far as it could be ascertained, than official interventions. A failed mediation by consultants engaged by the Western Cape government was followed by formal arbitration set to end by Thursday. Other meetings included a civil society gathering on Friday, 23 July that involved the development forums of Gugulethu, Nyanga and Phillipi, the SA Human Rights Commission, the provincial Community Safety Department and SAPS. 

Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula told Daily Maverick to “reach a sustainable solution and ensure the rule of law supersedes all”, he’d been working closely with his Western Cape counterpart. 

“We have agreed that drivers of the conflict include issues relating to allocation of routes and issuing of operating licences… To this end, we are considering declaring a moratorium on the issuing of new operating licences and working with municipalities in updating their Integrated Transport Plans (ITPs).” 

While this latest flare-up of taxi violence has focused attention on the Mbekweni-Paarl-Cape Town route, it’s not really about that B97 route. 

It’s about a hands-off regulatory official attitude — and the commercialisation of the Western Cape taxi industry, styled as formalisation and empowerment. 

Central to this are the Blue and Red Dot subsidy-linked projects. The Blue Dot was aimed to improve safety and quality. The Red Dot taxis provide healthcare workers’ safe transport in the Covid-19 pandemic, through Umanyano, a company formed by the Western Cape branch of the South African National Taxi Council (Santaco). 

The Western Cape government has expanded this, with each of the eight Santaco provincial regions establishing their own commercial companies for further pilot projects “to develop their capacity and ensure that they become viable businesses”, as Western Cape Transport MEC Daylin Mitchell put it in emailed replies to questions on the taxi industry. 

These eight commercial taxi companies and related projects, according to Mitchell, “will improve the Western Cape Government’s ability to regulate effectively”. 

But for many, this is tantamount to deregulation, and breaking down public services for the public good. 

Crucially, by allowing the establishment of minibus taxi companies that would fall under the Companies Act, the government is effectively allowing them to regulate themselves, while performing a public service, with little to no disclosure over their sustainability, ownership and state of finances. 

As with the City’s MYCiTi bus service, taxi associations and individuals are set to position themselves for gain in this round of public transport commercialisation. 

This is dangerous ground amid unresolved issues that include regulatory authorities’ claimed bias and inefficiency, and criminal elements in the taxi industry. Also unresolved remain underlying tensions between associations over routes, operating licences and floor-crossing, or taking operating licences along when joining another association. Operating licences, issued per vehicle, are the lifeblood of the taxi industry. 

Both Cata and Codeta claim that even though they are two of Santaco’s eight regions they are so-called mother bodies that can also organise and affiliate other region’s taxi associations and operating licenses. 

It’s an organisational issue that has dragged on since Santaco was formed, and was part of a 2017 Western Cape High Court judgment on Santaco provincial and national constitutions, elective meetings and so on. It’s understood that the mother body issue is part of a planned, but as yet unscheduled Santaco policy conference. 

The current B97 conflict underscores most, if not all these issues. The killing of 29 people underscores the human cost. 

Between April 2020 and the end of March 2021, Western Cape police recorded 121 taxi-related murders, alongside 69 attempted murders. 

The SAPS has arrested 94 suspects over the past 18 months, including 18 for taxi-related murders, 32 for attempted murder and others for counts including illegal possession of firearms, intimidation, hijacking and perjury. 

The number of taxi-related cases before courts is fluid… At a point in time during 2021, the figure was just over 50. The cases range from intimidation, perjury, illegal possession of firearms to kidnapping, hijacking, attempted murder and murder,” according to Western Cape SAPS spokesperson Brigadier Novela Potelwa. 

The closure of the B97 route may have calmed the conflict — for now — but the underlying issues remain. 

To date, there are still just six operator licences on this B97 Mbekweni-Paarl-Bellville route that is understood to have space for 19 operator licences. 

What the B97 taxi conflict shows is that it’s high time to resolve the underlying issues — from regulatory laxity and buck-passing to the role of criminal elements in the taxi industry, where accountability is much needed. 

It’s not clear why the other 13 operating licences have not been awarded. But this regulatory lacuna means as many as 40 illegal operators are taking chances, fuelling tensions, rivalries and factionalism. 

Both Cata and Codeta acknowledge this situation and are critical of the lack of effective regulatory authority, as is Santaco Western Cape. 

“They want to put the blame on the taxi industry. But we are not the statutory (regulatory) body. We don’t make these decisions. That’s the authorities,” said a taxi industry player. 

It could take five to 10 years to get a new operating licence. Existing associations on a route may well wait for approvals, he added, but other operators do not and move in, sparking tension and potentially, violence. 

“No operator licences have been issued. Cata has applied numerous times. You ask yourself what is the reason,” Cata Secretary Mandla Hermanus told Daily Maverick, adding Cata had been in Paarl since 1997. “The Western Cape government has not acted enough.” 

And the government also failed to cancel the operating licences that went to Codeta because of floor-crossing Cata members. 

“The challenge we are faced with is that our operators are not able to operate in Mbekweni simply because they’ve been violently displaced. Government has resigned itself to this, simply because Codeta decided so.” 

Codeta Secretary Lesley Sikhuphela rejected such claims. “That is an entirely false accusation.”

He said Codeta did not take over routes; associations joined voluntarily. Codeta would allow an association in if it had a right to operate on that route and it had no rival. If a rival existed, Codeta was unable to assist, “That’s a recipe for disaster,” Sikhuphela told Daily Maverick, adding that bullying had existed in the Paarl area for years. 

Asked about unlawful operators on the B97 route, Sikhuphela replied, “I can’t tell you how this is possible. Only the authorities can tell you”. 

MEC Mitchell said taxi industry instability was not about too many operating licences, but “over-trading on routes as a result of taxis operating without operating licences (illegally) with the permission or encouragement of leaders in certain associations”. 

The province has its own taxi regulator, while also complying with the 2009 National Land Transport Act which requires a provincial regulatory entity to deal with public transport matters, including administering taxi operator licences. 

Since January 2018, the Western Cape regulatory entity has suspended or withdrawn 46 operating licences for operational non-compliance, violence and criminal acts, including “a taxi driver assaulting a traffic officer”, the MEC said. 

As the City of Cape Town is updating its Integrated Transport Plan, including the use of tech such as congestion monitors, it aims to also include minibus taxis in an integrated public transport network. “To this end, the city plans to include minibus taxis in the next phase of MyCiTi as feeders to the trunk services, where appropriate,” according to Cape Town Mayor Dan Plato in emailed responses. 

But Cape Town neatly extricated itself from National Land Transport Act provisions as obligations to plan, monitor, oversee and even coordinate with other municipalities depend on the national Department of Transport awarding the council an operating licence function. 

That has not happened since the city applied in 2013, and therefore the city cannot establish a municipal regulatory entity, effectively leaving taxi industry oversight to the province while outsourcing legislated responsibility for ranks to a private company. 

On the B97 route conflict in July 2021, Plato says because the route’s Point A, or loading point, is in Mbekweni, Paarl, “the Drakenstein municipality has the obligation in terms of the National Land Transport Act to determine the need for the service between Paarl and Bellville”. 

Drakenstein Mayor Conrad Poole and City Manager Dr Johan Leibbrandt have welcomed the closure of B97. And after Thursday’s briefing on the taxi situation, the municipality said its traffic services were out on patrol. “We are working together with provincial traffic and SAPS to help ensure the safety of the commuters and of the buses providing alternative transport for this minibus taxi route.” 

But the security response and the two-month taxi route closure are quick-fix, stopgap measures. 

What the B97 taxi conflict shows is that it’s high time to resolve the underlying issues — from regulatory laxity and buck-passing to the role of criminal elements in the taxi industry, where accountability is much needed. 

Otherwise, the repeat loop of conflict, death and politicking simply won’t end. DM

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  • Mean while we the employees of Cape Town have to pay for Uber to transport our staff! How do we cut costs; reduce work days? How is it that the City and taxi association cannot get its act together but rather vacillate till it turns into a full blown crisis over two weeks. 3,5 million people are held to ransom by a City & Provincial administration that fails to do its job properly and a taxi associations that don’t care about their clients lives.