Taxi industry shoots down public transport plans

Alex Mabizela is a poster boy for the lawless world of South African minibus taxis.

Standing outside a taxi rank in central Johannesburg, amid drivers soaping down their cars and hawkers roasting corn on the cob on makeshift grills, he cuts a hapless figure, with his tattered shirt and cellphone dangling from a cord around his neck.

Then you notice his chest-high sjambok he uses in confrontations with other drivers.

“When you start to talk you start to fight. You have a sjambok like this, you’re going to hit some people,” he explains. “Guns? Yes, there are also plenty of guns.”

From the chapa in Mozambique to Kenya’s matatu, the privately-owned 16-seater minibus taxi is the transport of the masses in sub-Saharan Africa, ferrying people to and from townships in the absence of decent rail or bus services.

In South Africa, minibus taxis appeared during apartheid, transporting black workers to their jobs in white-owned homes and businesses for less than the state bus monopoly.

Taxi owners boast about being the pioneers of black economic empowerment—a post-apartheid government policy to incorporate blacks into the economy.

But their general disregard for the rules of the road and the rule of law means they are jeered, rather than cheered, by the public.

Minibus taxis are involved in many of the accidents that kill over 11 000 people on South Africa’s roads each year. Several lives are also lost each year in the taxi turf wars that culminate in shoot-outs between drivers on the job, sending passengers and bystanders ducking for cover.

Under pressure to come up with a decent, safe service before the arrival of an estimated 350 000-plus visitors in 2010 for the Soccer World Cup, South African cities are taking a wrecking ball to the minibus taxi industry.

By kick-off in the first game in June 2010, Johannesburg, Cape Town, Pretoria and Port Elizabeth plan to have hundreds of spanking new, full-length buses gliding along dedicated median bus
lanes on major arteries.

Unlike minibus taxis, which depart only when they’re full and stop wherever a prospective passenger has been sighted, the new buses would operate to fixed schedules between dedicated stations.

While there would still be a need for some minibuses to supply passengers to these bus rapid-transit (BRT) networks, most would become redundant. In return, the taxi owners would become majority owners in
companies that would be contracted by the cities to run the new service.

But taxi owners and drivers are sceptical. At a meeting of taxi owners and government in Pretoria on Thursday, die-hard operators rubbished the scheme as “shit”.

Bongani Kupe, a consultant mediating in talks between Johannesburg and Cape Town and their respective taxi companies, says the prospect of “going straight” is daunting for many taxi owners.

“Some of these guys only know how to operate in the informal world,” he says. “90% don’t keep accounts. Many of them are illiterate.”

Mazibela, who’s been driving minibus taxis for 27 years and whose meagre salary feeds 20 family members, says he fears the bigger buses will lead to job losses.

As tensions mount, taxi owners in Johannesburg have threatened to burn down the first new BRT station in the city.

The taxi industry officials that are mandated to negotiate with the cities are also running scared. At a meeting with taxi owners in Alexandra recently, police had to rescue industry representatives from a hail of flying chairs.

“You live your life in danger,” Eric Motshwane, chairperson of the regional taxi council, which comprises eight taxi associations in Johannesburg says.

Motshwane started out his career as a driver and now owns five vehicles plying the busy route between Soweto and central Johannesburg.

At the height of the taxi wars in Johannesburg in the late 1990s between members of the RTC and rival Top Six taxi council, the father of four had to “go underground” for three months.

Now, he says, it’s time to move on. After visiting Colombia and Ecuador, pioneers of bus rapid transit in the developing world, he’s convinced the only answer to the growing congestion on South Africa’s
roads is bigger buses.

BRTs will also help end taxi violence in the long term, he says. In Johannesburg, the benefits are already being felt. Because RTC and Top Six are negotiating with the city as one, the guns have largely fallen
silent.

“It’s been four or six months now since there was a shoot-out,” Motshwane says. “That’s a great achievement.”

But the road ahead promises to be long. Government was hoping for but failed to reach an agreement in principle with taxi owners at Thursday’s meeting. With Johannesburg aiming to have the first phase up and running by April 2009, in time for the Confederations Cup in June, time is tight.

“If we can come up with a good financial package that makes sense to them, nothing is impossible,” says Kupe. - Sapa-DPA

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