In 2011, representatives of the presidency, the public protector’s office, the department of transport, the police and the national treasury met to discuss a deadly taxi issue that was already five years in the making.
Two weeks later, then deputy head of the presidential hotline Eugene Mthetwa wrote in an email to all meeting attendees: “As per our 15 September 2011 meeting’s resolution, we agreed that the Hawks would take the lead in the investigations regarding the [illegal conversion of taxis] matter. Can you please communicate with one of the complainant[s] also so that they could be assured that the matter is being investigated.”
No one responded, not even the office of the public protector.
About two months later, four people died in a Port Elizabeth minibus accident. The detective investigating culpable homicide against the driver recommended others also be held responsible for the deaths.
The report says: “A new criminal docket [should] be opened with regards to investigating why and who was responsible for the physical condition of the vehicle, it being approved as a minibus without the legal homologation procedure and therefore further investigation on the registration and roadworthy certificate issues be conducted.”
The taxi’s occupants died when the driver fell asleep at the wheel, the police found. But the driver fell asleep because he had been overcome by fumes seeping into the vehicle through holes drilled in its floor.
This evidence was in an autopsy report that found traces of the same gases in the bodies of the victims.
When the driver woke up, he could not control the taxi in part because it lacked torsion rigidity.
Both structural issues were caused by the illegal conversion of a panel van into a passenger vehicle, the sort of conversion that was the reason for the September meeting, and which it had been agreed would be investigated by the police’s elite unit. It would not be the last time people died as a result of no follow-through on what should, by one account, have been a simple matter.
“I delivered all the documents and proof that these taxis were illegally on the roads and were killing people. No one ever got back to me,” says former banker Hennie de Beer, who is campaigning around the issue.
De Beer reported what has been colloquially described as the Killer Quantums to the presidential hotline, the mechanism set up in 2009 by President Jacob Zuma to support his push for “an interactive, accessible and compassionate government”.
Unbeknownst to De Beer, that complaint led to the 2011 meeting, where the system seemingly worked as advertised: the presidency co-ordinated among departments and institutions to work towards resolution.
One official at the meeting said the representatives there were appalled when they were told of horrific, and often entirely preventable, accidents caused by vehicles that were formally financed by major financial institutions and approved by safety regulators despite advice to the contrary.
The Port Elizabeth accident report describes the conversion on the vehicle involved as “authorised by [the SA Bureau of Standards, (SABS) and the National Regulator for Compulsory Specifications, (NRCS)] without the manufacturer of origin, Toyota Japan’s official approval for the conversion to meet their high safety standards.”
Banks and dealerships financed the vans, selling them to unsuspecting taxi owners as minibus taxis.
The very nature of the transactions means that numbers are hard to come by, but it is estimated that more than 4 000 such vehicles have taken to the roads since 2005.
An occupancy of 12 and a single trip a day makes for tens of millions of unsafe passenger trips every year.
The meeting in 2011 was as close as the executive ever came to action; it had formally been informed of the problem in 2009, when Toyota SA told the department of transport, NRCS and SABS it would not approve such conversions.
The department nonetheless issued a directive signing off on the conversions.
After the Port Elizabeth accident, De Beer laid another complaint with the office of the public protector, unaware that it had been part of a high-level meeting that had apparently come to nothing. In 2012, that office began a systemic investigation, and though the wheels ground slowly, they did grind.
In October last year, public protector Thuli Madonsela sent the department a letter that strongly hints at what the findings will be in her final report, expected in the coming months. “The conversion of Toyota Quantum panel vans into minibus taxis carrying passengers without the necessary approval of the manufacturer of origin is unlawful and unauthorised,” she wrote.
Several transport ministers have either approved converted taxis or refused to force their recall, instead seeking to making unsafe and illegal conversions legal, after the fact.
How many deaths can be linked to such decisions is not clear.
De Beer says he has evidence of 200 accidents involving converted vehicles, many of those fatal, in at least four provinces.
But it is the individual stories that tear at him, such as the smart teenager who had been accepted to study chemical engineering and who is now in a coma.
“This should not be allowed. I have been to everyone to beg for someone to take these taxis off the road. It’s been six years since I started working on this, going from pillar to post and this government has done nothing about these taxis that are killing the poorest of the poor,” said De Beer.
The presidency, treasury, SABS, NRCS, National Consumer Commission and the office of the public protector did not respond to requests for comment, despite having been phoned regularly and sent numerous emails since last week.
The spokesperson for the South African Police Service, Hangwani Mulaudzi, said that the individuals who had attended the September 11 meeting were no longer working for the police. He said SAPS would try to find records of whether the case had been taken up.
Ishmael Mnisi, from the department of transport, said that although the department has no recollection of any official attending such a meeting, it had set up a task team to address the situation at the time.
“The task team comprised representation from the department, vehicle financiers, the SABS, NRCS and Naamsa [National Association of Automobile Manufacturers], which resulted in a process of legal retro fitment that was agreed to by all parties,” Mnisi explained.
Retro fitment had happened against the advice from Toyota that such vehicles were not manufactured to carry passengers.
How to build a Killer Quantum
At full dealer price, a Quantum-branded delivery van will set you back R346 600, but that does not buy windows, or seats or the underlying engineering to make the vehicle safe for passengers, such as extra weight-bearing bars. For that you will have to part with at least R371 000, for the bottom-of-the-range built-to -purpose Toyota Quantum taxi, one of the most popular on the road.
But an enterprising individual with a couple of tools can make the one superficially resemble the other for much less than the R25 000 price difference.
To convert a delivery van into a passenger vehicle, windows are cut into the thin panels and fitted with glass. These rigged windows have been known to pop out, with passengers cut by the sharp metal edges exposed in the process.
Instead of seats fitted on to special bars, the converted taxis sport holes drilled into the floor for bolts.
The holes reduce the rigidity of the long body, making it more difficult to control in an emergency and sometimes allow seats to be torn loose, turning them and their passengers into projectiles.
These holes have been linked to exposure to gases produced by the engine, which can either be deadly or extremely detrimental to health in the long run.