About 5 000 taxi drivers and owners gathered at the Library Gardens in the centre of Johannesburg on Tuesday to protest the introduction of the bus rapid transit (BRT) system, saying they had not been consulted.
By noon, the throng were waiting for officials from the Department of Transport and the African National Congress and intended handing over a memorandum of their grievances.
A taxi driver said that busses were going to get a special traffic lane and that taxi’s would not be included.
‘In a bus you only have one driver, but for taxi’s, there are people from motor spares, car washers, drivers and queue marshals who are all going to lose their jobs,â€ taxi owner Brenda Tshabalala told the Mail & Guardian Online.
‘The other problem is that steering committees did not talk to the taxi drivers about it [the BRT]â€, said Victor Ndhlovu, a queue marshall
Some of the drivers carried knobkerries, while others held aloft signs, one of which read ‘Away with Jeffismâ€ in reference to Minister of Transport Jeff Radebe.
Lucky Bhengu, a driver, said: ”Jeff has an idea that BRT can save our transport system but we have been here for all these years … where were they [government] then?
Meanwhile, police fired rubber bullets at protesting drivers, a spokesperson for the United Taxi Association Forum said on Tuesday morning.
Spokesperson Ralph Jones said police had blockaded roads, preventing drivers from attending the rally at the Library Gardens.
The BRT system will consist of bus trunk routes around Johannesburg and taxi drivers were worried that they would ultimately be pushed off the routes.
The first phase of the approximately 50km trunk route is expected to be in place by June 1 2009. It would run from Regina Mundi church in Soweto, past the Orlando and FNB stadiums and end at Ellis Park stadium.
About 500 taxis were expected to be scrapped or taken out of routes, with plans to make taxi drivers bus drivers, the taxi industry’s BRT steering committee told the media on Monday.
The taxi industry is currently thrashing out a R2,5-billion contract with the city to become part of the first phase.
But drivers were concerned.
”How will drivers be employed?” Jones asked, adding that taxi drivers were business people who provided public transport.
”The taxi recap system forced us to get new vehicles. We are owing the banks … now how are we going to sustain that?” he said of the taxi recapitalisation programme in which drivers were paid money towards the scrapping of older vehicles to buy new models the government wanted to see used on the road.
”Routes have been taken from us. The routes are being dug for the buses … taxi drivers on those routes were told they will be employed elsewhere …,” Jones said.
He was referring to specially established lanes for buses, which taxis would not be allowed to use.
‘Accept the competition’
The Democratic Alliance (DA) on Tuesday said taxi drivers should accept the competition and ensure their own business models are viable.
DA councillor Ann Barnes said: ”The BRT is simply competition. If you want passengers to prefer your taxi over the BRT then you have to act in an economically sound manner.
”Better advertising, improved driver safety and cheaper prices would be far more effective than striking and preventing people from going to work,” she said in a statement.
United Democratic Movement (UDM) leader Bantu Holomisa said local authorities were carrying the burden of the government’s failure to consult.
”Minister Jeff Radebe has been warned on numerous occasions that he needs to consult,” said Holomisa.
He said the UDM wrote a letter in February to Radebe and President Kgalema Motlanthe to indicate that the taxi industry had numerous concerns that were not being addressed.
”It is this same minister who has failed to properly roll out the taxi recapitalisation programme, which is currently at a virtual standstill,” he said.
Santaco concerned about violence
Meanwhile, the South African National Taxi Council (Santaco) on Tuesday blamed the shooting of a bus driver in Soweto on outsiders, and not on striking taxi drivers.
”It is unfortunate that acts of violence are being reported,” Santaco secretary general Philip Taaibosch said.
”Sometimes you get people who are not part of these situations, and they take things out of hand. Our members were committed to peaceful action.”
A Putco bus driver was shot near the Merafe Hostel in Soweto on Tuesday morning, as taxi drivers blockaded roads.
Putco spokesperson Raphiri Matsaneng was upset by the news that a colleague had been shot.
”The bus drivers had their own industrial action and at no stage did they target the taxi drivers,” said Matsaneng.
”There was never a call not to go to work,” he said.
The driver was being treated in hospital and the company would monitor the situation during the day to consider how safe its passengers and drivers would be, he said.
Driver Penuell Shelembe, who had been tasked with fetching colleagues from Nancefield and the Mzimhlophe hostel, said he was stopped twice by taxi drivers.
”They said to me, ‘Where are you going? No cars will pass here’.”
After a brief conversation, Shilembe managed to weave his car through the blockade only to encounter another one at the Regina Mundi church in Orlando.