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It’s important to understand the history of the evolution of the taxi industry

Jeremy Cronin is a South African writer, author, and noted poet. A longtime activist in politics, Cronin is a member of the South African Communist Party and a member of the National Executive Committee of the African National Congress.He presently serves as the South African Deputy Minister of Public Works. See his Wikipedia profile here.

The call to subsidise taxis is understandable, the question is how? In short, it is not just about mobility, it is also critically about the accessibility of jobs and other facilities.

On Sunday, 28 June 2020, the South African National Taxi Council (Santaco) called on its members to openly defy government’s Covid-19 regulations that restricted passenger numbers to 70% of a full load. This call occurred at the very moment that Covid-19 infections were climbing exponentially, notably in metropolitan areas of Gauteng where the majority of taxi operators are located. 

On Monday, hundreds of thousands of workers were confronted with a cruel dilemma. “I have no choice,” Leslie Baloyi, a commuter who travels from Soweto to Johannesburg, told Daily Maverick. 

“I can either board the full taxi and risk contracting Covid-19, or not do so and get fired from work if I don’t arrive on time. I would rather stick with the former.” (Daily Maverick, 30 June 2020). This dilemma, this same no-choice choice to take the ride, was agonisingly expressed by numerous others in radio phone-ins, TV interviews and SMSes to news outlets. It could be read off the grim frightened faces at long queues at taxi ranks. Everyone was wearing a face mask. There was no reckless bravado in sight. 

In its sharply accentuated, tragic way, these hundreds of thousands of no-choice choices exposed the underlying cruelty, the daily hypocrisy of the capitalist “free” labour market. These wage workers, (not serfs, not slaves), these proletarians “freed” of any independent access to the means of livelihood (in South Africa, think inter alia centuries of colonial expropriation), were each “freely”, “independently” choosing to go to work. Marx called it wage-slavery.

If this unfree-freedom sharply exposed the daily reality of capitalism in general, a reality more or less concealed in “normal” times, it also exposed the specific features of a not-so-post, post-apartheid South Africa. 

Well before the Covid-19 crisis, over-crowded minibuses travelling from distant townships were Petri dishes for the spread of highly infectious diseases, most notably TB. In the suburbs and corporate headquarters, not too many people cared. 

The complaints from these quarters were focused on taxi-driver behaviour. Long queues, the herding of passengers by sjambok-wielding marshals, erratic driving, chronic violence in the sector and the cost of commutes for impoverished households (often up to 30 and 40% of household incomes), will certainly have contributed to the epidemic of hypertension that is now the major comorbidity for Covid-19 infections.

There are hand-to-mouth owner drivers, but there are also relatively wealthy fleet-owners (some politicians, some reputedly in the police). If the plight of commuters is dire, so too for the majority of drivers with few, if any, of the statutory worker rights being observed. 

All of this has a history. The social reproduction of super-exploited black labour dates back to the last quarter of the 19th century. The rural “native” labour reserve, across much of southern Africa, under the thumb of patriarchal domination, fed the mines and white-owned farms with a steady flow of influx-controlled, cheap labour prodded into work by hunger and the imposition of taxes to be paid in cash. 

In the mid-20th century, the apartheid regime increasingly replaced the rural labour reserve with the peri-urban dormitory township. The township became the dominant site for the social reproduction of racialised cheap labour. Daily migrancy replaced annual migrancy. Apartheid was never just about the exclusion of the majority of South Africans. It was also about an inferior, under-funded, hyper-exploitative inclusion.

This is the back-story to the emergence from the 1970s of today’s taxi industry. With the white minority regime and corporate South Africa unwilling to effectively spend on safe and affordable public transport for the majority of their workers, and retail outlet consumers, township entrepreneurs moved into the vacuum. Through the 1980s, the taxi industry emerged partly under continuous harassment from the authorities, partly with their approval.

From the outset, taxi operators inhabited a rough and tumble world, on the grey margins of the law. This industry, now consisting of perhaps 200,000 mini- and midi-buses (no-one knows exactly how many for sure), wasn’t advancement by way of affirmative action or black economic empowerment codes. It was boot-straps stuff. It was, and often remains, a Wild West blend of impressive entrepreneurial initiative and warlordism. Routes and taxi-ranks are controlled at times literally through the barrel of a gun.

There are hand-to-mouth owner drivers, but there are also relatively wealthy fleet-owners (some politicians, some reputedly in the police). If the plight of commuters is dire, so too for the majority of drivers with few, if any, of the statutory worker rights being observed. 

Taxi recapitalisation is another government initiative. It began with over-ambitious plans for a state-designed minibus and the false assumption that South Africa consisted of “two economies”, a well-functioning first, and a laggard second.

A common arrangement is for a driver to be expected to bring in a defined amount for a particular route – cash, as they say, to be left on top of the owner’s fridge at the end of every work-day. Anything over is the driver’s wage. Needless to say, this encourages overloading, speeding and a grumpy impatience towards slow-moving passengers and anything else on the road. 

Add to this the daily harassment by authorities, the ever-present risk of a taxi being impounded, not to mention the prospect of being shot by gunmen hired by a rival taxi association and you pretty much have one of the inner-circles of Dante’s hell.

Since 1994, there have been several important steps to address all of this. In the late-1990s, then minister of transport, Dullah Omar, drove a process with the objective of having a relatively unified and elected leadership, a formal interlocutor with which government could engage. 

Santaco was the outcome. It still is funded to the tune of several million rand by government and, if I am not mistaken, still occupies office space at the department’s Pretoria head office. But the taxi industry, being what it is, has also evolved a rival national formation with which government is also compelled to engage, the National Taxi Alliance. 

Taxi recapitalisation is another government initiative. It began with over-ambitious plans for a state-designed minibus and the false assumption that South Africa consisted of “two economies”, a well-functioning first, and a laggard second. The assumption was that the “second” economy required one-off ladders into modernisation – a new taxi fleet for instance. 

But the informal, the under-developed, the peripheralised, the crisis of social reproduction in our country is precisely the product of the way in which modernisation has been driven. Alexandra and Sandton, Soweto and Johannesburg, Khayelitsha and Cape Town are co-dependent, each the product of the other.

A more realistic taxi recapitalisation process that has evolved over several years now has, I believe, visibly contributed to a generally safer fleet of taxis on our roads. A scrapping allowance for the retirement of old vehicles is, in theory, the down-payment on a new vehicle compliant with safety regulations. 

The call to subsidise taxis is understandable in this context. But how? They don’t operate scheduled services, and specific passenger numbers per route and per local association are hard to verify.

However, it is precisely meeting the monthly instalment payments on these vehicles that is now at the heart of Santaco’s call for defiance. In this hand-to-mouth, cash-based industry, the ability to meet monthly instalments has, of course, been drastically squeezed by the initial full lockdown and the subsequent partial reopening, but with restrictions on passenger numbers. Santaco estimates that some 40% of vehicles could be repossessed before the end of July 2020.

The taxi industry, transporting some 66% of public passenger trips, frequently points to the fact that private bus operators and Metrorail operations are publicly subsidised. Yet, buses were transporting some 21% of passenger trips daily before the Covid-19 pandemic, and Metrorail (what’s left of Metrorail after chronic, State Capture plundering – see the withering accounts underway at the Zondo commission), was carrying 13%. 

The taxi industry is also perfectly aware of what is going on with the ill-advised Gautrain public-private-partnership. The Gautrain, according to its website, has provided 60 million passenger trips in its entire history (compared to the estimated, pre-lockdown 15-million daily trips provided by the taxi sector). The Gautrain is costing the Gauteng government over R1-billion a year in a “ridership guarantee” to the privately-owned Bombela consortium. The Gautrain, which assiduously bypasses anything resembling a township, is hopelessly, but predictably failing to remotely meet its contractual ridership figures.   

The call to subsidise taxis is understandable in this context. But how? They don’t operate scheduled services, and specific passenger numbers per route and per local association are hard to verify. A helicopter drop of monthly subsidy cash into the sector could worsen the often chronic and sometimes violent rivalry. Given the informalised nature of most of the industry, it is hard to directly subsidise operations. A more useful approach might be to find ways of providing public subsidies into the financing of taxis. 

But none of this touches the systemic underpinnings of the current crisis. Perhaps the most important of these is the perpetuation, in fact, aggravation by Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) housing development, of apartheid urban spatial settlement patterns. In the early 2000s, when I was still formally involved in the transport sector, the average public transport trip in London was 8.6km, in Moscow 7.7km, and in Tshwane 25.4km. 

I suspect not much has changed. These distances make the economic sustainability of any form of public transport in South Africa extremely challenging. I recall a visit to the PUTCO bus depot on the north-west outskirts of Pretoria just after 10am. There was a huge fleet of buses idling between the morning and evening rush hours. Because of the distance of commutes, many of the buses were only able to make a single one-way trip in the morning and a single one-way return trip in the evening. 

In short, it is not just about mobility, it is also critically about the accessibility of jobs and other facilities. This means taking jobs to where people are, and affordable housing to where the jobs and facilities are. Much delayed land reform has to be also, perhaps especially, about urban transformation. The patterns of racialised social reproduction of poverty, inequality and unemployment that go back into the 19th century have still not been transformed. The Covid-19 impact on working-class mobility is a tragic symptom of this reality. DM

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