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ANALYSIS

Microcosm of a fractured society — taxi operators’ strike is not a simple black and white issue

Microcosm of a fractured society — taxi operators’ strike is not a simple black and white issue
Hundreds of people walk home on the N2 in Cape Town on 3 August 2023 after taxi operators went on strike. (Photo: Gallo Images / Brenton Geach)

The Western Cape taxi operators’ strike and its associated violence reveal much about our country and its politics. Suffering in the middle are commuters and bystanders — ordinary people held hostage by different actors in our society.

The trigger for the strike by the SA National Taxi Council (Santaco) was the ongoing impoundment of minibus taxis by Cape Town officials for breaking certain laws.

The city says it is impounding taxis under the National Land Transport Act. It points out that many other councils in other provinces use the same policy and have often impounded taxis.

It is true that the law treats public transport drivers (which includes minibus taxi drivers and Uber drivers) differently from other drivers. 

While a taxi driver may have their vehicle impounded for going through a red traffic light, an ordinary driver would not. The city says these policies have been in place for many years (it also says it has the right to impound your cellphone if you use it while driving).

To release the vehicle, a fee must be paid, which appears to increase for repeat offenders.

Santaco, and those who support it, say that they are only treated like this in Cape Town (this is not true — taxis are often impounded in other places, including Durban) and that they are being unfairly targeted.

They also claim that this is an existential threat to their industry — if a vehicle is being held by the city it cannot generate revenue. As a result, they claim, many minibuses are being repossessed by the financial institutions which funded the original purchase.

Santaco claimed in court that it could not be held responsible for the violence in Cape Town this week. It said there was no evidence that those responsible were its members and that it had publicly told its associations to not engage in criminal activity. 

It’s hard to believe the taxi industry’s protestations.

The role of the DA

The fact that Cape Town and the Western Cape are run by the DA is a fundamental part of this issue.

The strike and the violence associated with it occur in a context in which the DA’s opponents claim it is trying to make the areas it governs different from the rest of the country. The fact that the DA is trying to take more legal powers from the national government (and that the Western Cape is the only province with its own constitution) gives ammunition to those who claim this province does not want to be part of South Africa.

While the minister of transport, Sindisiwe Chikunga, on Tuesday condemned the violence, she also said, “It can never be that a city will define itself outside the parameters of national laws and implement penalties that are out of sync with these laws. We therefore call on the city to immediately release, without any conditions, all vehicles impounded based on operating licences and leave those impounded in terms of the National Land Transport Act of 2009.”

The taxi industry is now likely to demand that its taxis are released, based on the minister’s comment, while the city will say, and has said, that the minister is deliberately misinterpreting the law.

This has led to Police Minister Bheki Cele and Cape Town’s mayor, Geordin Hill-Lewis, arguing with each other live on TV.

Considering South Africa’s history, the history of the taxi industry, and the racialised inequality that still defines our society, some people will try to define this in terms of race, to portray it as a “white DA administration” against a “black-owned industry”.

However, it is more complicated than that.

English-language talk radio has been ablaze with conversations about the strike.

Many callers who identify as black and coloured, from Cape Town and around the country, have talked about their experiences with taxis and how their lives have been endangered by taxi drivers.

They have been speaking for millions of people, the majority of whom are black, who bear the brunt of how taxi drivers operate and the violence associated with them.

(It’s worth mentioning that there are moments when members of the taxi industry have received praise across the board — taxi associations organised to prevent looting during the violence in 2021 and taxi drivers put their lives on the line to save people during floods).

The views of callers indicate that there is strong support for the City of Cape Town’s action, and that many people, across racial and class divides, support the rule of law, and believe the taxi industry cannot be above it.

This may mean that those who oppose the city are on the wrong side of the argument.

Perhaps.

Because this also goes in other directions.

In a society defined by race, the identities of those in charge matter.

Too many white men?

One of the major charges made by Chikunga, Police Minister Bheki Cele and others, is that the City of Cape Town has been “arrogant”. 

This may carry a subtext, a reminder that those in charge of the city and involved in making all the decisions that matter are white.

In particular, both Chikunga and Cele have mentioned the safety and security head in Cape Town, JP Smith.

He and all the other main public role-players in this are white men, including Hill-Lewis and Premier Alan Winde.

This is a feature of the DA’s deployment, where for many years the party has been accused of appointing nearly all-white city and provincial cabinets.

Imagine for a moment, how different this national debate might have been if the mayor of Cape Town, the MMC for safety and security, and the premier of the Western Cape were black.

The fact the DA has insisted, repeatedly, on appointing local and provincial cabinets dominated by white men may have weakened the party dramatically.

While the national government may be accused of taking the side of the taxi industry for the moment, there is a much more fundamental issue at play.

The power of violence

The taxi industry is probably the most powerful organisation in our society outside of government. It has the power to defy every other sector.

It does this through the power of organisation and the power of violence.

It is aided in this by South Africa’s apartheid spatial geography; poor black people live in townships far away from their jobs. Taxis are the only way for many to get to work.

The taxi industry often operates outside the law; as a largely cash business, it is not clear that it is tax-compliant and any South African who has been on the roads in the past 20 years will know that minibus taxi drivers do not obey traffic laws.

For some, this makes the situation in Cape Town a stark fight between the rule of law on one side and the taxi industry on the other.

As security analyst Dr Hennie Lochner pointed out on SAfm on Tuesday morning, this may soon affect the national government.

This is because the Transport Ministry has said it will soon implement the Aarto legislation around the country. It will include a demerit system in which a driver could lose their licence for consistent law-breaking.

Aarto will fail completely if it does not apply to taxi drivers.

This means that the situation in Cape Town may well be an indication of whether the national government can implement its own legislation.

In the meantime, those with the political power, and the guns, will continue to fight.

And the vast majority will have no option but to trudge home and pray for better days. DM

Gallery

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Mervyn Bennun says:

    This is a helpful analysis, not the least because it indicates that a great deal of important information is not known, and that there is a variety of practices and procedures. Moreover, it appears that the law is not straightforward and leads to conflicting implementation and decisions. What is needed is a Zondo-like enquiry into the entire area of commercial passenger transport, including rail. Amongst other matters we need to know more about the ownership of taxis, their financing, the terms of employment of drivers, and who is responsible for the maintenance and condition of the vehicles. The enquiry should have the power to make recommendations. It appears that apartheid has left its dire influence on the industry, and this needs to be probed and eliminated. There is no reason why South Africans cannot have safe, modern and efficient passenger transport services instead of something inherited from apartheid. If all South Africans are equal before the law, then the law and its application must make this possible. There is simply too much hidden from the public eye in passenger transport. That is why exposing the facts and then planning in the light of what is learned are essential for progress towards the society we want. What we have makes human rights impossible.

    • Ben Harper says:

      Nothing is hidden from the public, the destruction of critical infrastructure by the anc is there for all to see. 1994 saw the transition with world class infrastructure in place and fully operational – that’s 29 years ago. Was anything expanded on? Was anything developed further? Attempts at growing public transport infrastructure (certainly on Cape Town) have been hijacked by the criminal elements of anc, eff and of course the taxi mafias.

      SA did not inherit the criminality and incompetence of the anc from Apartheid – that’s home grown mate.

      No sir (or ma’am or they/them or whatever) apartheid has not left a dire influence on the industry, the greed, corruption and racist anc, eff and taxi mafias have done that.

      From what you write one can only assume you’re an anc shill. You want to expose facts? Look a the corrupt incompetent and and/eff cadres and you’ll find all the answers you want

    • Denise Smit says:

      Please find out who are the owners of the Taxis, Me thinks the Minister protestest too much. Denise Smit

      • Cedric Buffler says:

        On national tv last night, the head of SATACO stated that the owners supported the arrest and other punishment for the drivers who deserved it, but resented having to lose their vehicles because of the impounding. This callous attitude is at the heart of the problem. Drivers (often unskilled) are treated as “cannon-fodder” for these mafiosa who demand a minimum income from them before they (the drivers) begin to earn for themselves. Naturally they overload their vehicles and exceed speed limits and endanger the lives of passengers and others. They are desperate people, in an impossible position.

  • Reinier Breytenbach says:

    The point that needs analysing is this: why should the taxi industry obey something as trivial as the traffic laws, when the ANC’s top leadership ignores the Constitution?

    • Lisa nel says:

      Exactly. And reducing it to literally a ‘black and white’ issue is reductionism to the lowest possible point of departure from the rule book. The demerit system works in the developed world. One would hope passenger safety and human lives cannot be bought or in this case bartered in exchange for slackened regulations.

      • Bill Gild says:

        Excellent point. While SA is an upper-middle-income country, and industrialised, the fact of the matter is that under ANC/SACP rule, we are rapidly devolving to a state of chaos and anarchy.

  • Karl Sittlinger says:

    The sudden heavy resistance of the taxi industry has very little to do with racism or the DA led city of Cape Town. This is clearly a matter of greed. Till now when fines were issued, taxi owners didn’t really care much, as their vehicles simply kept on being driven. This impounding of taxies is impacting their bottom line and thats the only reason for the ensuing terrorist like retaliation (and their actions can only be called that). What would be helpful now would be a comprehensive list by the City of Cape Town how many vehicles have been impounded and exactly for what reasons, to finally put the accusation of unfair and race based targeting to rest. While the creation of our taxi bus industry has its roots firmly set during apartheid, it’s violence, lawlessness and greed have very little to do with it. Reasons for that can be clearly laid at the ANCs door and years of letting the taxi industry get a way with murder and tax fraud purely for narrow and selfish political reasons.

  • Rama Chandra says:

    The most powerful organisation in the country is the coal lobby. They are destroying the country single-handedly, reducing business and employment and undermining the state.

  • Denise Smit says:

    Steven, you are making this a black versus white issue again, picturing the DA as pure white and you know the DA is the most diverse of all parties. Where are the White, Indian or Colored members, or council members of the ANC? This is about the implementation of the law to make the roads safe for drivers and the public. Do not make this about politics. If you have ever driven on the N2 in Cape Town you will know the reason for this. Denise Smit

  • Andrew W says:

    There is a political hand being played in the WC. This looks very much like the Defiance Campaign. Taxi bosses and Cadres sit around the same cigar lounges. A platform to attack the only working area of government is being made. All the while ordinary folks have their lives and livelihoods turned upside down. The ANC is nothing if not consistent in its destruction of SA

  • Steve Davidson says:

    Test

  • Bill Gild says:

    “While a taxi driver may have their vehicle impounded for going through a red traffic light, an ordinary driver would not.”

    This off- the -cuff, and statistically unsupported statement seems to me, a not infrequent driver in CT, to be spurious.

    I witness, almost daily, both taxi drivers, and other vehicles, going through unambiguous red lights. I have never seen either stopped, let alone impounded.

    Mr Gro0tes needs to be careful with his language and assertions.

    • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

      And in any event I understand the legal criteria for offering a people carrying service are different than the criteria for a private vehicle.

  • Sabienne Herbst says:

    Driving around traffic circles where taxis stop to drop off passengers is scary and only one of the offences blatantly practiced. Surely there can be no excuse for encouraging lawlessness which endangers EVERYONE?
    Making our roads ungovernable is an undoubted recipe for disaster and I worry that we’re already past the point of no return when our Ministers demand that there be no negative consequences for offences. Our beloved country continues to weep.

  • Carsten Rasch says:

    An excellent analysis, thank you Stephen, and more so because you are not “pulling” your opinion. I am fully in support of the City in this action against taxis. Santaco’s immediate reaction to any curbing of their ‘freedom’ is always first violence. This is not surprising. Many taxi owners are real-life gangsters, and their taxi businesses are money laundering operations. Others are politicians, but their reasons are the same. The enforcer aspect of this ‘industry’ is also part of its psychology. There’s a strong case that taxi owners sell transportation, but are actually an organised criminal racket. Successive governments have not only allowed this ‘industry’ to exist and to grow into the Frankenstein monster is presently is, they are participating in it. The ANC government and the taxi business are entangled with each other like a toxic koeksister. This crackdown would never happen elsewhere on this scale, because the ANC municipalities will never act so strongly. Having said that, JP Smith’s attitude is as unacceptable. He is arrogant, a bully and full of bluster and should not be tolerated as a leader in our city management for a day longer. (Or shift him to Water and Sanitation, which needs a far stronger hand). The only way to permanently rid ourselves of this criminal organisation and its untouchable leaders in Santaco is to nationalise the taxi ‘industry’ and align it with existing public transport.

  • Cedric Buffler says:

    Has anyone else noticed that the entire British press is reporting today, about the murder of the 40-year-old British surgeon who took the wrong turn on his way to the airport. He was murdered in front of his wife and young child.
    I have not been able to find any mention of this significant incident in local media.

    • ak47.king ak47.king says:

      Not only the British press. Aljezeera is also reporting on the taxi violence in the western cape.
      Blocking off and shooting at the airport turnoff from the N2 is definitely going to make international news and going to negatively affect tourism for all of South Africa.
      The taxi industry is nothing more than a violent group of thugs and criminals who think that they are above the law and these are not laws for local government to collect money through fines. These laws are there to protect the lives of all people using vehicles on the road. There is a reason South Africa has one of, if not the highest death toll on the roads. If fines aren’t enough of a deterrent to bad driving and bad behaviour on the road, then impounding vehicles are the next step to try and change the behaviour of the drivers and the owners of the taxis. How many people have to die in accidents while in a taxi or caused by a taxi before we decide that enough is enough?

  • Philip Mirkin says:

    Thanks Stephen, for bringing some real facts into the debate. One fact that I have not seen mentioned anywhere is how the systematic destruction of bus and rail transport has played its role in empowering the taxi industry. I do not know if any concrete link between the taxi industry and politicians and the police, or the burning of busses, threatening of bus drivers, and the devastation of the rail infrastructure has been established, but the facts of this story could go much deeper than what we have seen to date.

  • Johan Buys says:

    The taxi crowd’s power stems from ¾ of commuters needing to use a taxi for at least one leg of their commute. If we had better public transport, the taxis lose their leverage. Maybe one day we will have rail and bus doing the long legs with taxis serving the transport nodes, like intermodal systems work all over the world.

  • sl0m0 za says:

    The DA does not hire only white people, they hire only competent people. If the majority happen to be white, that is a reflection of relative competence, not of race. CADRE deployment has already shown how destructive incompetence can be. Very few in the ANC top brass are actually competent either since the Zuma era of destruction and state capture / economic terrorism

  • Stef Viljoen Viljoen says:

    “Imagine for a moment, how different this national debate might have been if the mayor of Cape Town, the MMC for safety and security, and the premier of the Western Cape were black.”. Mmmmm, me thinks not so much. What difference would that have made? Maybe the decision to impound taxis would never have been taken, but I do not think that the point can be made that black leadership would have made a difference under the circumstances. This is not a race issue. Violence and intimidation are two of the main business principles of the taxi industry and it is naïve, in my opinion, to think that that will change. Do you seriously think that if consequence management was practiced in Jhb or Pietermaritzburg the results would be different?

  • Jane Crankshaw says:

    This taxi strike is not a black vs white issue. It is not even an DA vs ANC issue. It is a wrong vs right issue. The race card has no place in this conversation.

  • Mike Schroeder says:

    Interesting how @stephengrootes indicatively ignores that a strike does not include blocking roads, setting buses alight, pelting cars with stones and imperiling commuters.
    No, that’s all OK, after all, it’s apartheid’s fault — 30 years later

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