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It’s time to rewrite the taxi industry rule book — the taxi barons must be co-authors

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Murray Bridgman is an advocate and mediator with the Cape Bar, where he was admitted in 1985. He handled his first taxi case in 1989 and has been involved in numerous taxi trials since then, including murder trials, trials arising from turf wars, and representations to the Operating Licence Board. His fascination with the taxi industry was kindled by a taxi boss, Michael Kupiso, who became a friend and taught him to understand the taxi industry. Kupiso and Bridgman gave evidence before the Ntsebeza Committee of Inquiry into Taxi Violence in June 2005. Kupiso was assassinated at his home four days later.

In Cape Town the taxi industry is lightly governed, if at all, by the City and province — but it is strictly governed by the taxi barons. The barons of Cata and Codeta are community leaders. They have skills, wisdom, insights and abilities that must be respected.

The taxi strike ended with the lighting of candles and prayers in St Georges’ Cathedral. Both the City of Cape Town and Santaco said good words and were relieved the strike was over.

However, unless the underlying issues are resolved it will only be a matter of time until the next spate of taxi violence erupts. I say this as an advocate of the Cape Bar who has been involved in numerous taxi industry cases over more than three decades.

So what are the underlying issues? I will give an answer under a few headings: 

  1. Reality fact check;
  2. The nature of the taxi industry;
  3. The rule of law;
  4. Neo-medievalism; and
  5. The inefficient Operating Licence Board and their use of the term “overtraded”.

Reality fact check

Reality fact check, the annual turnover of the minibus taxi industry nationwide is R90-billion, which is virtually untaxed. There are approximately 12,000 minibus taxis in the Western Cape, of which approximately 8,500 have valid operating licences.

That leaves 3,500 “illegal” minibus taxi drivers who commit the crime of contravening the National Land Transport Act by getting up early in the morning in order to take the workforce to work.

The City of Cape Town and the Western Cape Provincial Government paid R2-billion (or is it R3-billion?) to get MyCiti up and running. MyCiti transports about 15% of commuters. The taxis transport about 70% of commuters.

The majority of taxi owners are decent law-abiding people who want to look after their families and send their children to school, even if they don’t pay tax. A new minibus taxi costs over R500,000. The 12,000 minibus taxis in the Western Cape at an average of say R350,000 represent an investment by the private sector of R4.2-billion in the public transport system of Cape Town.

When violence erupts as it did in Cape Town, one must remember that there are certain people who profit and gain from the violence: the hitmen who are paid to kill, those who supply the guns, and the criminals who may or may not be connected to the taxi industry but who take the opportunity to loot and steal.

The nature of the taxi industry

The nature of the taxi industry is difficult to define as it covers a large spectrum. There are approximately 125 taxi associations in Cape Town, which for current purposes can be divided into five types.

The first is a small, well-run community-based taxi association. It is the ambulance, the police and the eyes and ears of the community. It takes the soccer boys to their matches, the choir and the church to its outings, all at a small cost. There are a number of such wonderful taxi associations in Cape Town.

Then there are large well-run taxi associations of which there are one or two in Cape Town. And there are large, badly run, sometimes chaotic, taxi associations of which there are many in Cape Town.

Then there are small, well-run criminal syndicates masquerading as taxi associations. What better means to run your guns, your drugs or whatever? Crime has its way of reaching its tentacles into legitimate enterprises. An upsurge of violence enables criminals to come to the fore and create the mayhem that we saw recently in Cape Town.

And then there are the mother bodies, such as Cata and Codeta, which control other associations. There have been taxi wars between Cata and Codeta for years; these are mostly turf battles waged directly or by proxy.

There are also succession struggles that erupt into murders, such as the eight or nine people recently shot dead in the centre of Cape Town as part of a Cata succession struggle. The list of deaths due to internecine taxi wars is frighteningly long and huge, but it does not get as much media attention as one murdered English doctor.

The rule of law

Our national Constitution is based on the rule of law. There has been much breaching of the rule of law in the current fracas. When Alderman JP Smith says “for every bus burnt we will impound 25 taxis” he sounds vindictive, rather than as if he is attempting to apply the rule of law. The law must be enforced impartially, without fear or favour. It should not be enforced as a tit-for-tat response.

As Mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis said: “The message is clear: in Cape Town, the laws of this country apply equally to everyone and violence will not extract a single concession from this government.”

While this statement is laudable, it is undermined by the fact that it is impossible and unworkable to apply the rule of law as intended here and to impound all 3,500 unlicensed taxis that operate daily in the Western Cape. Thousands of commuters would be stranded. The economy would suffer. The official impounding yard is simply not big enough to hold all those taxis, which brings me to neo-medievalism.

Neo-medievalism

Neo-medievalism is a phenomenon which is present in many developing and undeveloped countries. It describes areas or industries which are ungoverned or lightly governed by the official government. It describes circumstances or places where the writ or authority of government does not hold sway.

The failure of Sars to tax the taxi industry has already been mentioned. In Cape Town, the taxi industry is lightly governed, if at all, by the City and Province in townships such as Langa, Gugulethu, Nyanga and Khayelitsha, let alone the informal settlements — but it is strictly governed by the taxi barons.

Don’t think just anyone can drive a taxi in those areas. In those areas, the taxi industry is controlled by the barons, whose subjects are far more loyal to the barons than to the City or the Province. The fee to join an association is R60,000 or higher. Then the barons tax their subjects with daily or weekly levies from every taxi. In times of taxi wars, the levies are higher.

Political scientist John Rapley writes, “drawing upon a theoretical elaboration of the concept of neo-medievalism… medieval government [is] present when four features co-exist: multiple and overlapping authorities; subordinate… authorities enjoy autonomous resource bases; they can defend their autonomy but lack the power to fully secede from the system; and they exist in a relationship of reciprocal obligation with the central government, dependent on the latter for some services, whilst rendering services in return.”

Rapley proceeds to add a fifth common feature, which he says may not be a sine qua non of medievalism: “subordinate authorities tend to base their authority and legitimacy on their ability to marshal violence.”

Anyone with knowledge of the Cape Town taxi industry will immediately recognise that neo-medievalism is present. The simple truth, for better or worse, is that central government does not control the minibus industry in the townships.

The Operating Licence Board

Before moving on to deal with the good opportunities that currently exist to address the underlying factors in taxi violence, this article must deal with a dark and doleful subject, the inefficient Operating Licence Board and their use of the term “overtraded”.

The Operating Licence Board is not efficient. Its records are in disarray. Too often aspirant Taxi Operating Licence holders are sent from pillar to post and driven to frustration and desperation. Too many allegations of corruption have been made for the probability of corruption to be ignored.

It takes months for applications to be dealt with. Sometimes applications simply disappear and are never heard of again. Applications are regularly refused without any reason given. Very often applications are refused on the pretext that “the route is over-traded”.

However, nowhere is there a definition of “over-traded”. Despite numerous requests, I have never been given a definition of “over-traded”. It is simply a “thumb-suck”.

It is stating the obvious to say that there are 12,000 minibus taxis in Cape Town because that is what the market needs. It is also stating the obvious to say that the associations with on-the-ground experience and knowledge know far better than the officials whether more taxis are needed or not.  So would commuters, for that matter.

If Mayor Hill-Lewis and Premier Alan Winde are serious about reforming the Western Cape taxi industry, they must deal with the Operating Licence Board.

However, there is a set of knotty problems. The first problem is that the current system needs a regulatory overhaul, drawing on both market realities and the experience and institutional knowledge of current officials. There are also historic problems of route invasions and dysfunctional associations. The elephant in the room remains those 3,500 illegal taxis which represent an investment of approximately R1.225-billion in Cape Town’s public transport system.

These are serious and complex problems which will not be easily solved. It cost R2- or R3-billion to provide MyCiti busses to 15% of the commuters. It should not cost anything like that to give 70% of commuters a functional taxi industry. To his credit, Mayor Hill-Lewis is aware of and has identified the problem of the illegal taxis. Let us see how he deals with it.

Every crisis is an opportunity. The opportunities are numerous. The members of Cata and Codeta have mostly come from the Eastern Cape to look for a better future in the Western Cape.

It has often been said that the taxi industry is the best example of black business. Yes, it has its many problems, but the taxi owners have invested billions in the industry. Taxi entrepreneurs should be diversifying and investing in other industries.

The medieval barons of England brought King John to heel at Runnymede resulting in the Magna Carta, which is acknowledged as the first step towards constitutional government and the rule of law.

The barons of Cata and Codeta are community leaders. It is not for a lack of skill or ability that they have risen to be leaders. They have skills, wisdom, insights and abilities that must be respected.

How about a charm offensive from the City? A taxi trade fair at the CTICC? Involving taxi associations in housing and commercial developments?

There is now a Taxi Task Team. Will it be a talk shop delivering nothing, or will it succeed where so many other initiatives have failed? DM

Full disclosure by Murray Bridgman: I am at present representing 52 members of the Hout Bay Taxi Association who are claiming compensation from the City of Cape Town in terms of the City’s Compensation Policy pursuant to the introduction of MyCiti in Hout Bay, in case number 6983/2019 in the High Court in front of Acting Judge Khan-Parker. I do not see this as creating a conflict of interest, as this is a straightforward case which will be decided on the evidence.

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Bruce Danckwerts says:

    Dear Murray, It is articles like these that make my support of Daily Maverick so worth while. It is not a gripe about what is going wrong in South Africa but a practical and wise proposal as to how a problem might be solved. Again, the work of the late Elinor Ostrom sheds light on how your proposal should be taken forward. The whole Taxi Industry in the Western Cape is a Common Pool Resource. As such, Ms. Ostrom’s work identified the best way in which a CPR can be administered – in a nutshell by the STAKEHOLDERS (taxi owners AND commuters) deciding the rules. You are much closer to the action, so I suggest you persuade the Mayor and his Council, the various Taxi Associations and anyone representing the commuters to read Ms. Ostroms “Managing the Commons” then invite them all to a public meeting. Lock them in and don’t let them out until they have agreed the outline of how the Western Cape’s Taxi CPR is to be administered. Ms. Ostrom deals with what she calls “nested” CPRs which means her rules can be extended upwards to include the whole country and downwards to include a smaller suburb of the Cape, so long as no rules within these nested CPRs contradict each other. There is indeed an opportunity to find a solution. Progress at last. Bruce Danckwerts, CHOMA, Zambia

  • Ben Harper says:

    No mention of the taxi industry’s blatant destruction of city and public transport infrastructure in order to protect their kingdoms?

  • Rob Scott says:

    A very well reasoned article with practical, albeit very logical, solutions. We require as a country a rule of law that is applied fairly and equally.

  • Jacques Maree says:

    “MyCiti transports about 15% of commuters. The taxis transport about 70% of commuters.” This may be true, but it’s not the full picture. Metrorail currently transports 2% of commuters in Cape Town – that’s down 95% from ten years ago. That’s where the biggest part of the solution lies. We need to get passengers off the roads and onto trains, not formalise more taxis on the road.

    • Steve Davidson says:

      Thanks Jacques – you said just what I was going to. What I would add is that the ANC have done everything in their power to stop the CoCT from creating an integrated transport system by refusing to hand over control of metrorail; their corrupt mismanagement of the Eastern Cape has meant even more economic refugees fleeing here; and the taxi mates burn the Golden Arrow buses whenever they can. This bloke is obviously involved with them and really needs a reality check. But I doubt he’ll get one.

  • Malcolm Mitchell says:

    Dear Mr Bridgman, I accept your credentials but suggest that you are going completely against the principles and practice of an integrated public transport system using all three modes of transport to their optimum capacity. This is a simple public transport approach a as obvious as the benefits of motherhood.
    For 9 years in the 1990s I was DDG in the national DOT when it was a well run department accepted by opposition parties as on par with the DOF. During this period my responsibilities included all transport on land in SA and I soon came to realise that the taxi industry was only interested in their own gain in any possible way. They virtually destroyed the public transport systems in the country’s met. areas. I cannot say more here for space considerations but you might like to look up my evidence to the Goldstone Commission on taxi violence for a fuller account.
    Dr. Malcolm Mitchell D. Eng. (Transportation) Ph. D. (Tpt Economics

  • Andrew C says:

    A well reasoned article. But the premise is faulty. We should be doing everything we can to move away from taxis and towards safer and more efficient methods of moving masses of people every day. Taxi drivers may be essentially good people just trying to provide for their families, but they do so while breaking many traffic laws every single day. They put the lives of their passengers and other road users at risk. These are therefore not law-abiding people, but rather people looking out for themselves and what is good for them.
    We need to find better employment opportunities for the drivers. They are exploited by taxi owners who give them tough targets to meet causing them to drive recklessly.

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