/ 24 March 2009

Taxi drivers threaten to ‘cripple the economy’

About 5 000 Gauteng taxi operators and drivers brought Johannesburg’s CBD to a standstill on Tuesday. The protesters have threatened to “cripple the economy” and “bring even the trains to a standstill” if their memorandum of demands is not met within seven days.

The memorandum was handed to African National Congress (ANC) Secretary General Gwede Mantashe by Ralph Jones, national spokesperson for the United Taxi Association Forum (UTAF), at Library Gardens, Johannesburg, this afternoon. It lists the industry’s grievances regarding the bus rapid transit (BRT) system. These include job losses and lack of participation in the planning process.

The city centre was devoid of shoppers, and most shops closed for business, as the protesters — some carrying knobkerries and banners — marched from Newtown’s Mary Fitzgerald Square to Beyers Naude Square (formerly known as the Library Gardens). Some of the banners read “One bus driver, one bullet”, “The taxis helped you to exile” and “Away with Jeffism” (a reference to Minister of Transport Jeff Radebe),

The taxi forum’s public relations officer, Joe Mophuting, said 29 taxi associations were expected to participate in the protest, but many more joined.

Initially, the Permit Licensing Board’s Sbu Buthelezi braved the crowd to receive the memorandum, but angry shouts from protesters, who demanded a more senior official, led to his swift removal by police. Mantashe later emerged from Luthuli House to accept the memorandum.

Mophuting told Mail & Guardian Online that the protesters had initially planned to march on Luthuli House but agreed to congregate at Beyers Naude Square, after Friday’s negotiations with the authorities.

The protesters claim that the BRT system will cause innumerable job losses in the taxi industry.

“In a bus you only have one driver. But for taxis, there are car washers, drivers, queue marshals and people who work with motor spares who are all going to lose their jobs,” taxi owner Brenda Tshabalala told the Mail & Guardian Online.

Some protesters also complained that the steering committee of the BRT had not approached them for input, or tried to include them in the planning process.

Mophuting says UTAF met Johannesburg Mayor Amos Masondo and Mayoral Committee member Rihanna Moosajee on February 17. Mophuting says they were promised feedback within 14 days, but received only the minutes of the meeting nearly a month later.

Jabulani Masilela, a protesting taxi driver, feels the BRT will be unfair competition. “The buses are going to have their own lane, therefore they will be faster than taxis,” he says.

Lucky Bhengu, a driver, said: “Jeff [Radebe] has an idea that BRT can save our transport system, but we have been here for all these years … where were they [government] then?”

Although many protesters claim there has been no contact with the BRT steering committee, M&G Online has established that talks have been under way for at least a year. According to Bob Stanway, Johannesburg’s executive director of transportation: “The City is engaging with the affected operators travelling the BRT targeted routes”. Stanway says all current operators will be included in the new BRT system. “They are not necessarily the same jobs, but they are better quality jobs,” he adds.

Stanway also says that the BRT will help to formalise the taxi industry, and so create better working conditions.

Not all Gauteng taxi associations are against the BRT. Frans Mashishi, Secretary of the Gauteng Taxi Council, earlier told M&G Online that, “as long as (BRT) does not compromise the position of current taxi operators, we don’t have a problem with the deal.” He added that many concerns are based on “misinformation”, and that taxi operators are “afraid of change”.

Speaking to journalists after receiving the memorandum, Mantashe expressed concern over several violent incidents sparked by Tuesday’s protest. “As far as we’re concerned, people are exercising their right to protest, but it must be orderly,” he said.

According to UTAF, Gauteng taxis should operate normally tomorrow.