“It’s mid-morning now and I have only made two trips today from Soweto to Johannesburg city center,” says taxi driver, Calvin Mokoena*, as he counts the R330 in his pocket.
The 41-year-old former car-sales representative says by this time he has usually made his first R500 of the day. This would be used to help cover a full tank of petrol in the minibus taxi that he operates. With that covered, his daily target is usually R990 — enough to then look after his family.
Making that amount of money means at least six round-trips a day, which is impossible with the national lockdown in effect.
“Last week I took home only R90 a day after giving the taxi owner his share of the day’s earnings and pouring petrol into the car. Under the circumstances, we aren’t able to make as much money as we need,” he says.
He adds: “If this thing [lockdown] goes on for too long, I won’t be able to afford my daughter’s high-school fees any more.”
Mokoena’s minibus taxi is one of an estimated 200000 taxis that transport 15-million commuters daily. The industry has seen a drastic drop in the number of users as the country enters its second month under lockdown in a bid to restrict people’s movement to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
Under level four of the lockdown, taxis may operate between 5am and 7pm daily (previously from 5am until 10am and again from 4pm to 9pm) but they must limit the maximum number of passengers to 70% of the licensed capacity. Passengers are required to wear face masks and the vehicles must be sanitised regularly in between trips.
Spokesperson for the National Taxi Alliance (NTA), Theo Malele, says the reduction in the number of passengers permitted on a taxi means that the drivers are able only to break even and can’t make a profit.
Drivers are free to collect and drop off passengers along the routes, but that still doesn’t close the gap caused by the reduction in the number of passengers and the losses incurred by the new regulations.
“The taxi industry will never be the same again … We have additional costs now for hygiene purposes and we don’t want to pass those costs on to commuters,” he says. “We cannot return to full capacity for now. This pandemic has taught quite a number of things like hygiene should never be neglected.”
To offset the financial damage, the South Africa National Taxi Council (Santaco), the country’s largest taxi organisation, has warned that some operators have begun to inflate their fares. Fare increases have mainly been found in Limpopo, KwaZulu-Natal and the North West provinces.
Since day one of the lockdown the industry has lost more than R2-million per day in revenue, according to the organisation’s spokesperson, Thabisho Molelekwa. Although revenues are expected to increase under level four of the lockdown, the cost of operation remains high “and taxi drivers are not able to stay out of the red”, he says.
Beyond the pandemic, Santaco president Phillip Taaibosch says the industry will have to take a deeper look into its expected “new normal” — when health and safety of all stakeholders will be a crucial element of a safe and secure journey. To support the industry’s recovery and long-term sustainability requires a mix of operational-cost efficiencies, regulation and subsidisation from the government.
Unlike other informal workers who have been able to look to the state for relief, the taxi industry has been left to fend for itself during the crisis. Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula said in a recent media briefing that because the industry is not regulated, its workers do not qualify for the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) coronavirus-relief payments.
Taaibosch says one of the issues that will reshape the industry post-coronavirus is a possible subsidy for the industry, which has been in the pipeline, but has not yet been introduced. He says additional funds from the government could help the industry formalise by ensuring that drivers are employed on a permanent basis and are, therefore, eligible for UIF and other employee benefits.
Taaibosch was reluctant to comment on possible relief from the government, but confirmed that there have been discussions between Santaco and the transport department about aid that is on the cards for the industry.
In April, Santaco launched an independent R3.5-billion relief fund for the industry, with hopes that it would cushion the blow of Covid-19. At the time of the launch, Taaibosch said the fund is aimed at supporting all stakeholders in the industry including taxi drivers, queue marshals, taxi-rank managers and taxi owners.
To date, the fund is yet to bear fruit, because Santaco is still looking for a response from the private sector, Taaibosch says. “We hope that, in time, they will be responding even beyond Covid-19. The relief fund will be of assistance to a number of issues that the industry needs to be addressed.”
*Not his real name
Thando Maeko is an Adamela Trust business reporter at the Mail & Guardian