Defend Truth


The rule of law may be hanging by a thread in SA, but it urgently needs our backing


Geordin Hill-Lewis is the Mayor of Cape Town.

I am grateful that cool heads ultimately prevailed in the Cape Town taxi strike and that we now have a signed agreement that allows the hard work in the Taxi Task Team to continue without compromising on the rule of law.

In the late hours of last Thursday, 10 August, around 9.30pm, the destructive week-long taxi strike in Cape Town came to an end, when a statement by taxi union Santaco began whipping around WhatsApp groups announcing the strike was off.

The truth of these moments is always stranger than fiction. Behind the scenes, that statement had leaked prematurely, and at the time the strike was called off there was still no final signed agreement.

At that moment, I was standing in a dark parking lot outside a long-scheduled dinner speech event, locked in a series of frantic phonecalls, Zoom calls, and WhatsApp chats with Western Cape Premier Alan Winde and others, trying to agree on the details of one last sticking point. Before we even signed on the dotted line, it was over!

Had we been dishonourable negotiators, we could have claimed that since the strike was called off before an agreement was signed, there was no agreement. But we had spent much of that day, and week, negotiating in good faith, and we were determined to end it in good faith too. And so the agreement was locked in with a one-line return email from Santaco’s lawyer.

My approach is to ask what kind of country we want to live in in 10 or 20 years time, and to work back from there for guidance in the decisions we need to make today. I want to live in a country where certain basic values are no longer in dispute – the rule of law being right at the top of that list.

Now that some of the dust has settled, and much of the work has moved into the negotiating chamber of the Taxi Task Team, I can try to offer an honest analysis of what I take from this week, and its implications for the future:

Firstly, the dispute arose because the City of Cape Town has chosen to pursue stricter enforcement of existing national traffic laws in our jurisdiction. Simple as that. Nothing new, illegal or malicious. Yet, just applying the law was a surprisingly controversial thing to do, even in a country with some of the worst road death statistics in the world, and where taxi conduct on the road is notoriously dangerous.

The rule of law is hanging by a thread in South Africa. You would think this most fundamental of democratic concepts needs as much support as it can get.

Sadly, many of the hundreds of proposed “solutions” sent to me over the days of the strike amounted to capitulating to taxi demands for less (or zero) enforcement, or negotiating which parts of the law would apply to which people. These well-meaning but deeply misguided proposals would only have aggravated the underlying malaise in the long run by sacrificing the principle in the short run.

Secondly, South Africa simply doesn’t stand for anything anymore. What are our national values? Can we name them, and do they mean anything when they are constantly honoured more in the breach than the observance? Whether it be on the international stage, or our handling of criminal former presidents, or making deals with organised crime, we just don’t stand for anything anymore.

My approach is to ask what kind of country we want to live in in 10 or 20 years time, and to work back from there for guidance in the decisions we need to make today. I want to live in a country where certain basic values are no longer in dispute – the rule of law being right at the top of that list.

So when dealing with complex and nuanced crises, it helps to start by asking what principle is at stake. Once you know that, you defend the principle and prepare to manage the consequences, rather than jettison the principle to avoid difficulty.  

Third, the threat of violence is not, and can never be, a negotiation tool. We made it clear, throughout the week of the strike, that we are not prepared to talk with a gun to our head. When we drew that line in the sand, and obtained an interdict in court last week, the violence abated and we could resume our talks. That is the only way we will ever do it. Violence will get us nowhere.

It would send a powerful message if all of government, at every level, was consistent on this point. When we refuse to negotiate under conditions of violence, we disincentivise the use of violence. When we keep rewarding violence by rushing back to the negotiating table, we just incentivise more of it for next time.

In this case, the deal that Santaco finally signed eight days after embarking on the strike, and a full week after our initial negotiations, was virtually identical to the deal they’d rejected when the strike wasn’t even 24 hours old. The terrible loss of life, the millions of rands of damage to City property, the cost to our economy, and the long-term damage to our reputation as a global travel destination were all for no additional gain for them.

Fourth, we must address the structural issues in the industry that make this kind of disruption possible. Most importantly, we must redouble our efforts to devolve passenger rail to the City and province. The way to reduce the ability of the taxi industry to bring our city to a standstill is by resurrecting the Metrorail service. And this can only be done through the devolution of passenger rail from the national government to the Metro.

We need national government to start speaking in one voice on this, because the mixed messages and contradictions on the issue of rail devolution is helping no one.

I was also interested to see the intervention of Cosatu in the debate, calling for the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) to mediate. The irony is, of course, that no taxi driver in South Africa is protected by the CCMA because they are not employees and do not earn a minimum wage. Neither Cosatu nor the ANC has ever taken up this obviously exploitative labour relationship. The laws of the road are not the only laws that the taxi industry is allowed to ignore while the national government turns a blind eye.

Drivers are actually incentivised to break the law because they need to squeeze in as many trips as possible to earn a basic living. I will now be taking up this issue with my colleagues in Parliament – if we could get taxi drivers protected by labour legislation, I believe a great deal of the lawlessness would vanish.

And finally, the details and truth matter. Much of the debate, and even the inputs of national ministers, missed the easily verifiable detail of the law: that the National Land Transport Act empowers and enables impoundments for all breaches of operating licence conditions. Too many people, media and again even ministers, accepted Santaco’s oft-repeated untruth that only unroadworthy vehicles may be impounded, without simply checking the law. This makes it hard to conduct an honest debate.

Since signing the agreement, Santaco has persisted in misrepresenting that agreement to its own drivers and the public. I understand the need to save face, but what they are doing is actually downright dangerous – as taxi drivers think one thing and traffic officers another, conflict situations are sure to arise quickly.

Both parties are duty-bound to communicate the terms of the agreement honestly. I have called on Santaco to stop misleading their members about what was agreed, and do so again now.

The final taxi deal

So what was finally agreed? The deal agreed upon on 10 August, which brought an end to the strike, states the following:

  • The impoundment of taxis will continue, under the National Land Transport Act, for vehicles driving without an operating licence (including off-route), drivers without a professional driving permit (PDP) or driver’s licence, or vehicles that are not roadworthy;
  • Within 14 days from Monday 14 August, a Taxi Task Team will define a list of additional major offences for which a vehicle can be impounded. This will take the form of a standard operating procedure, which will guide the discretionary use of powers provided for in the national act;
  • Also within 14 days, the Task Team will compile a list of minor offences which do not have implications for passenger safety, and which will not be impoundable. While we believe that the City has already been following this distinction, Santaco will have the opportunity to provide the impoundment notices for cases where they think their vehicles have been incorrectly impounded for minor offences. We will assist them by making representations to the public prosecutor to support the release of these vehicles;
  • Santaco will never again call a strike in the middle of a working day, and will give at least 36 hours notice of any planned strike action;
  • Before calling strike action, the Task Team will now have a dispute escalation and resolution clause, to escalate disputes directly to the premier and the mayor; and
  • The entire agreement is premised on violence never again being used as an attempted tool of negotiation. If that happens, the agreement is nullified.

The 36-hour notice clause is incredibly important, because a strike called in the middle of a workday, with commuters and school children stranded in town, is unacceptable. The sight of desperate people taking to the highways on foot to cover up to 30km to get home is something we never want to see again. It was an affront to human dignity.

So too the desperate pleas of panicked families looking for their children who also walked home, alone and at night, when their school transport didn’t arrive.

I am grateful that cool heads ultimately prevailed and that we now have a signed agreement that I think allows the hard work in the Taxi Task Team to continue without compromising on the rule of law.

If there is one positive to be taken from this, it is that this city set a precedent for our country. By not giving in to the threat of violence and by refusing to be cowed by anarchy, we have strengthened the rule of law, and reinforced the message that there is nothing to gain through lawlessness and violence. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Anton van der Westhuizen says:

    Wow.. I have not seen real leadership like this in my lifetime.
    This may have been a defining moment for the young mayor

    • danesterhuyse says:

      The way to go. The mayor and JP make a great team, with the backing of staff concerned. They have my vote.

    • Roelf Pretorius says:

      Well, there was in our lifetime actually – that of Nieu-Zeeland Prime Minister Arden before and during 2020 (in the time of the massacre and during the pandemic). But still – full marks to Hill-Lewis; his strong actions to protect the residents of Cape Town will undoubtedly get the DA a lot more votes, and the poor ANC is most probably going to lose a lot of the little bit that they still had left before the strike. I say again: Hill-Lewis for President?

  • David Walker says:

    All strength to the mayor of Cape Town. A thin blue line stands between law and order, and chaos. And that thin blue line is not SAPS, but the DA.

  • . . says:

    Mr Mayor,

    If you seriously want to fix the taxi industry you need to revisit the system of granting operating permits. Fundamentally by requiring membership of a taxi organisation as a prerequisite you empower these Mafia like organisations. Surely a more free market approach would be the best for all parties, by that I mean

    1) no limits on the number of operating permits per route
    2) the conditions to obtain a permit are only technical and administrative (road worth taxi, PDP, Some minimum additional training, Tax registered, etc)
    3) integration into CoCT payment methods (tap to pay, my citi fares)

    If you see what Uber has done to the metered cab business, we urgently need this in the taxi industry.

    Many will say this is a utopian vision, but if as you say, we value the rule of law, commuter safety and non negotiating with the threat of violence this is achievable

    • Ben Harper says:

      Good points – the start of regulation of an anarchistic industry

    • Roelf Pretorius says:

      Good point – but to free the taxi industry up for real competition, you first have to restore the rule of law, better known as democratic law and order, more or less as the Cape Town mayor has said; because without that taxi’s that operate on their own will not be allowed by the other taxi drivers & owners. And it is true that the taxi industry must be formalised, ie each taxi must be registered and each taxi driver must be paid a decent salary with medical aid and pension, etc. I really thought that this was already done 20 years ago; shame on the ANC that 20 years on since they started to expedite this and still NOTHING has been done.

  • Peter Doble says:

    Mr Hill-Lewis, I have fully supported your stance. Of course it is the only sane and sensible approach. Unfortunately you are preaching to the converted. As we witness daily, the rule of law does not apply to the nation as a whole. We have by design or default a corrupt and violent society, encouraged by a weak and compliant national governing political party.

  • Jacques Maree says:

    Imagine if this was the approach to the rule of law and the threat of violence from every sphere of government. This country would’ve looked a lot different by now.

  • Bradley Bergh Bergh says:

    Gordon and his team should be commended for their handling of a highly complex situation!

  • Paul Hoffman says:

    The Constitution regards the rule of law as supreme.
    Upholding the supremacy of the rule of law is a fundamental aspect of the duties of all elected politicians who are bound by their oath of office to do so. Open, accountable and responsive governance by a public administration that takes seriously the obligation of the state to respect, protect, promote and fulfil the human rights guaranteed to all in the Bill of Rights ought to be the everyday way to fulfil the service delivery promises of the Constitution. Holding the line on these matters ought to be commonplace, not front page news . Bringing the taxi industry into line with the Constitution is still work in progress , despite the restoration of an uneasy peace in Cape Town.

  • Brilliantly written. Thank you Geordin, for your cool, astute and resilient demeanour throughout the strike. Above all, I commend you on the great leadership you and so many others demonstrated. Things could have taken a turn for the worse at any point, but capable and prudent leadership prevailed.

    Your consideration for human life is also something to be commended.

  • Brian Doyle says:

    Hats off to our Mayor and his team. They have done what our spineless ANC government and officials do not do and that is follow and obey the rule of law. Geordin Hill-Lewis is the epitome of what a politician should be, honest, law abiding and looking out for all of his constituents. The taxi industry has to be regulated to end their antics, disregard of the law and holding a city or country to blackmail

  • Bob Kuhn says:

    Just a pity that the minister and santaco cannot read….let alone comprehend, the law!

  • Louise Wilkins says:

    Great article and informative, thanks. I would love to see the DA in power, imagine what you could do for the country. If only the masses would stop voting for a corrupt government.

  • Lisbeth Scalabrini says:

    Isn’t there a minimum time for calling a strike in SA? In the EU and also GB I think that it is seven days. The 36 hours is better than nothing, but too little to organise anything.

  • A Concerned Citizen says:

    Regardless of what happens in next year’s much-anticipated national election, I see a strong case for Geordin Hill-Lewis being elected DA leader and leading South Africa as a result in 2029. He is doing a fantastic job.

  • Beyond Fedup says:

    Brilliant! CT is very lucky to have such a great mayor along with his team! We need to stand up to what is right and not allow sinister and corrupt forces to derail us. This country has become lawless, murderous and predatory where anything goes with zero consequences. The sense of impunity and entitlement is staggering, and the example has been set by the hideous and corrupt anc and its vile and idiotic so-called leaders. Voetsek anc! CT and SA does not need you – you are masters of theft, corruption, destruction and breakage. You leave nothing but a wasteland and bankruptcy behind.

  • Kelly Holland says:

    Gosh! Can’t we clone Geordin Hill-Lewis? Imagine how awesome this country would be if we had a parliament filled with people like him? Now that would be something!

  • Denise Smit says:

    The Western Cape DA team set an example for the rest of the country by allowing law and order to prevail. Please can the police find the killers, looters , arsonists, stoners and destroyers of infrastructure. They must face the full might of the law. Denise Smit

  • Roelf Pretorius says:

    Geordin Hill-Lewis for President? Maybe not such a bad idea.

  • Elia Gideon says:

    God save south Africa, Get out the ANC

  • Maria Janse van Rensburg says:

    Mr. Geordin Hill-Lewis for President. The unintended consequence of the manner in which this crisis was resolved and the principles that were upheld, is that it can strengthen the hand of the ANC government when they also apply the rule of law. A government that tries to please everyone and not make any waves is bound to result in a loss of control and anarchy. You do not have to be everyone’s friend to garner votes. But you do have to show that you stand for something and that the voters can trust you to uphold that principle. It is a fallacy that the ANC must get the majority of votes because it liberated South Africa. A country with a strong opposition can provide the checks and balances that prevents an overreach of power. Because the ANC has messed up our country so badly, they should accept that they must sit in the opposition benches until they have proven to the electorate that they have taken responsibility for the mismanagement of the country and the resultant broken economy, high unemployment rate, lack of proper health care, dis-functional education system, broken infrastructure and that they are changing their ways. It is unrealistic of the ANC to expect the citizens to simply forgive it for decades of self-enrichment at the expense of the ordinary man in the street. So as in Monopoly we say: Go to jail. Go directly to jail. Do not pass Go. Do not collect R200. And do not try to buy your way out of jail.

  • Daniel Bower says:

    Absolutely brilliant!

  • alison ellard says:

    No political manoeuvring! Just doing his job! Upholding the law, and ensuring the safe transportation of commuters. This is how you get votes!

  • Humbler Eachday says:

    This is leadership and standing against what is right and not backing down when times gets tough!!! I believe it is truly a new South Africa 2.0,,,

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