War of words escalates between taxis and city

Hostilities between the government and the taxi industry escalated this week in the run-up to the launch of the Rea Vaya Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) on Sunday in Johannesburg.

Deputy Transport Minister Jeremy Cronin lashed out at the South African National Taxi Council (Santaco) for misleading and misinforming the taxi industry about government’s plans on BRT. And the Cabinet issued a statement on Thursday condemning “all threats of violence against the implementation of the BRT”, saying these would not be tolerated.

But Santaco followed its announcement of strike action from Tuesday September 1 by filing an urgent court application in the Northern Gauteng High Court on Thursday to interdict the City of Johannesburg from proceeding with the BRT launch. The application is backed by 26 affiliated taxi organisations in Gauteng, and cites the president, the transport minister and the premier of Gauteng as respondents.

Cronin said Santaco’s legal case is “weak” and unlikely to succeed, because “negotiations are still going on between relevant stakeholders and the majority of taxi associations operating in the Jo’burg area are supportive of BRT”.

“So we don’t think that there is a strong case,” he told the Mail & Guardian.
“We will in the meantime go ahead with preparations for the launch this weekend.”

Cronin told the M&G that Santaco’s unhappiness is motivated by the association’s attempts to win a stake for itself in BRT. But Santaco has no case when it argues that the City of Johannesburg has been unreasonable in its negotiations with taxi organisations, he said.

Recently the city established a negotiating team to talk to the taxi industry. It received support from top regional and provincial structures, namely the Greater Johannesburg Regional Taxi Council, Top Six Taxi Organisation, Gauteng Taxi Council and the Gauteng structure of the National Taxi Alliance.
The city said the invitation to observe and support the negotiation process was extended to Santaco and the National Taxi Association, which so far have failed to respond ­positively.

But that is “a blue lie”, said Santaco general secretary Philip Taaibosch. “The [city] lured us to take part in a meeting that we did not agree on. We told them that we will not stay in a meeting that does not reflect the needs of our members.”

He said government is to be blamed for not playing its cards openly. “Santaco has never been against the BRT but —we are requesting that there should be a framework to make this project work for all of us,” he said.

The association has emphasised the importance of including all role players in the taxi industry, including commuters, he said. “Why should Santaco be held responsible for the failures of the government in this regard? When taxi recapitalisation was first introduced we supported it and the same applies with the BRT,” Taaibosch said.

Cronin told the M&G that although an effective public transport system is important for a successful World Cup next year, the BRT is not “a do or die thing” in that it is not a specific precondition for the country’s hosting of the tournament. And strike action by the taxi industry will not pose a threat to hosting the World Cup, he said.

Since June the taxi industry in Johannesburg and nationally has been divided regarding taxi industry transformation approaches, particularly with BRT. Eric Motshwane of the Greater Johannesburg Regional Taxi Association, which represents some of the local taxi associations operating on Johannesburg’s BRT routes, accuses Santaco of intimidating and misleading taxi drivers and owners.

Some taxi drivers and owners have received death threats for supporting BRT projects, Motshwane said.

“We’ve agreed with the City of Jo’burg to give us an offer and they have promised that in three weeks’ time we will know how we are going to work together in making this project a success,” he said.

City of jo’burg behaving like thugs
Most taxi drivers, owners, queue marshals and taxi rank food stall operators on routes across Johannesburg affected by the Rea Vaya Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) are clueless about how the new bus system is going to operate.

“BRT is a tricky issue. What I know is that BRT people are approaching individuals behind associations’ backs,” says Soweto taxi driver Tshepo Mokotamo.

He says government and the City of Johannesburg are behaving like thugs. “These people operate like someone who invades your yard and erects a shack behind your house without your consent,” he says. “But no matter what they do, the strike is continuing and we support it,” he says.

Mokotamo says the announcement that government will give the BRT system to all stakeholders in the taxi industry is absurd. He says most taxi drivers and owners are confused at the moment because there are different stories about BRT daily in the media.

“All we do is listen to what everybody is saying, but that does not help us in any way. I think the idea of buying us buses and paying us does not make sense—there’s too many of us,” he says.

For Mama Phumzile, a middle-aged taxi driver working on the Chris Hani Baragwanath route, BRT will not only take food from her table “but will snatch it from my mouth”.

She is convinced that BRT is being implemented to destroy the taxi industry. “This job is all I have. I am approaching 50 and have raised all my children doing this job. Who is going to employ an old woman taxi driver like me when the BRT kicks in?” she says.

BRT is a government plan to bully the taxi industry and take away the money the industry is generating, she says. “Government always looks for ways of snatching money from the poor.”

Nathi Molefe, a food stall operator from Dobsonville, wants BRT stopped “once and for all”.

“I started selling my cookies here only a month ago and I am already seeing the difference in my life. The money I make here is good because taxi drivers buy from me the whole day,” she says.

Molefe is worried that the introduction of BRT means there will not be taxi drivers hanging out at the taxi ranks during the day anymore. “These guys support us, so if you take them and put them in buses how are they going to see what we are selling and where will we be put to run our businesses?” she asks.

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