Naledi Moses doesn’t usually catch taxis at night. But in August last year she headed home late from campus and didn’t want to walk in the dark.
An Uber would have cost about R38; a taxi ride would cost just R6. Moses, who did not want to use her real name, reasoned that she wasn’t too far from home, and it would probably be safe enough, so she put out her hand to hail a taxi. Although she was alone with the driver of the taxi, she didn’t feel unsafe at first.
Then he started to talk about his sex life. “When he put his hand on my thigh at the stop sign, I just opened the door and ran. I didn’t even care that it was almost night. Us women, we are not safe, even in the taxi, even in the street,” she said.
Over the past two weeks, nine women have reported that they were raped in taxis in Soweto. Community Safety MEC Thapelo Moiloa said this number is likely to rise.
Similar cases have been reported in Naturena and Booysens, south of Johannesburg.
“It has been going on for some time now but victims chose to keep silent on these burning matters and it’s only now that they have started reporting these rape ordeals,” said Moiloa.
In the taxi industry itself, the approach to women’s safety seems far from co-ordinated.
Taxi drivers interviewed in Ivory Park, Soweto, said they didn’t believe women were being raped by taxi drivers but rather by criminals posing as taxi drivers.
“I am certain that through police investigation they will find out that they [the perpetrators] aren’t connected to the taxi industry,” said Ivory Park taxi driver Themba Dunjaa.
Some maintained that women are responsible for their own safety when commuting. Thomas Tshabalala, who has been driving a taxi for the past 30 years, said women make themselves vulnerable to rape. “In the way that they dress and some are loose when they’re drunk. So most of the time, actually, they must look after themselves,” he said.
According to the department of transport, 68% of the country relies on minibus taxis for transport.
Last week, Transport Minister Dipuo Peters advised commuters to take “necessary precautions” when using public transport.
“They must advise their family members, friends or coworkers of all their travel routes and schedule, including sending the registration of the mode of transportation they use,” she said in a statement.
“They must observe everything around them and must not doze off or get too distracted by other things because lack of attention can make anyone an easy target of crime.”
The South African Police Service is investigating the rapes and hopes to make arrests soon, but the overwhelming sentiment from officials is that people must take responsibility for their own safety.
SAPS spokesperson Captain Kay Makhubela echoed Peters’ view that people need to take safety precautions to prevent being victims of attacks. “As police we can move on the road and not know that there is a problem until someone is telling us there is a problem,” he said.
South African National Taxi Council spokesperson Ralph Jones warned that criminals may take advantage of passengers who catch taxis from the roadside rather than at taxi ranks.
“We will play our part but commuters must also play their part. They must ensure that they don’t just get into a vehicle without [checking when it has] correct identification,” said Jones. Registered taxis, he said, have association membership stickers and identification numbers on the left and right side of the vehicle.
Jones said the rape reports were a “wake-up call. This has never happened, it is something new so we need to improve security.”
He said the taxi industry needed to improve security in the vehicles. “We need to speak to IT, we need to install vehicle trackers, cameras.”
National transport department spokesperson Collen Msibi said the issue of security was not the transport department’s competence but rather the job of law enforcement agencies.
Gender activists say advising women on safety precautions is not helpful. “They’re essentially privatising safety and saying it’s not a government responsibility,” said Lisa Vetten, a researcher at the Wits City Institute in Johannesburg.
“People don’t behave badly because they are bad people. There are opportunities in an environment that enables them to behave in a particular way. And there is unquestionably a responsibility on the state to minimise those opportunities as much as possible,” she said.
Rehana Moosajee, a consultant and former Gauteng provincial minister for transport, said there needs to be a much more “thought-through approach” to understand harassment and assault associated with minibus taxis and that long-term solutions needed to be implemented to counter these. The heart of the issue is a “highly traumatised society”, she said.
For many women, the daily taxi commute is a dehumanising and potentially dangerous event. “The taxi drivers are the worst. The way they speak to you, they don’t respect women at all,” says Soweto resident Sarah Khumalo, who also chose to used a pseudonym. “When I get into the taxi I pray. That is the first and foremost thing.” — The Daily Vox