/ 29 July 2021

Taxi violence: Fight for survival in Cape Town’s dangerous turf war

Standstill: The ongoing taxi war has put a strain on transport, leaving commuters waiting for hours in Cape Town’s city centre. (David Harrison/M&G)

Sheltered against the howling southwester, five men sit inside the sparsely furnished shack of a mechanic in Cape Town’s Khayelitsha township. Laughter erases the sound of the wind as the men empty a plate of umbengo (braaied meat) with bread on the side. 

But the amiability becomes earnest and sober as talk shifts to a matter that overshadows their livelihoods: the never-ending taxi war in Cape Town. The group of men leave the warmth of the shack and stand outside, where several minibus taxis are parked and look out of place.

The taxis are normally part of the daily bustle of commuters rushing to and from work, shops and school. But for the past two weeks, the volatile industry has demonstrated once again its undesirable ability to hold society, the government and the economy to ransom.

Since the start of the year, 83 people have been killed in the Western Cape. In July alone 24 people, including commuters, lost their lives, among them two women in their twenties, while others have been injured, including a five-month-old baby.

“We are not allowed to drive,” says taxi driver Xolani Moss, whose vehicle is parked outside his house as a result of an ongoing stand-off over routes. Moss has four children and recently had to cover the costs of burying a family member. 

“I’m waiting on the boss to tell me I can drive,” he says.

Moss, whose route covers the Wynberg, Claremont and Hout Bay areas, is afraid to go back to work in the face of the targeted killings of taxi drivers. He belongs to the Congress of Democratic Taxi Association (Codeta), which is locked in a turf war with the Cape Amalgamated Taxi Association (Cata). 

Rows of Cape Amalgamated Taxi Association minibuses stand idle at the Langa taxi rank. (David Harrison/M&G)

A former Codeta driver who worked without a driver’s licence between 2012 and 2020 before quitting the taxi business, says even if he were to get a licence, he would not return to the job. Besides the lengthy list of traffic charges against him, he does not want to deal with the daily battles one needs to survive.

“The taxi war starts from Paarl, the people from Paarl need permits [operating licences for each taxi],” says the 28-year-old.

“People get individual permits but others do not and that is where the war starts. Codeta has permits, Cata has no permits. That is why the people are fighting. They are fighting over permits.”

It is peak hour at 4pm at the public transport interchange (PTI) in Bellville. But the usual rush of commuters, hooting taxis and traffic congestion has been replaced by police and traffic law enforcement officials who are monitoring the area. 

“We don’t want the police to leave,” says Qaasiem Ceitch, the ring manager for taxis at the Bellville taxi rank, which are not Cata and Codeta members. 

“It is quiet, we are at our second load. Normally by this time we would already have had five loads,” Ceitch says, as he coordinates the few taxis not affiliated to Cata or Codeta.

Given the dangers of the renewed taxi war, commuters have sought alternative transport. But at the height of the taxi violence, a Golden Arrow bus driver was shot and wounded on the N2 highway, causing the company to temporarily limit its services in the City of Cape Town metro municipality for a week.

“If they [Cata] say close the rank, you close it. It is not the first time this has happened. We have about 40 taxis, they have 200 taxis that operate, we’re just stuck in the middle,” Ceitch says.

The offices of both Cata and Codeta are closed. Across from the public transport interchange is Paint City, where rows of Cata taxis are parked.

(John McCann/M&G)

Last week, the MEC of transport and public works, Daylin Mitchell, enforced section 91(2) of the National Land Transport Act, effectively closing the disputed Route B97 between Mbekweni/Paarl and Bellville for two months, with effect from Monday.

The closure affects two taxi ranks in Mbekweni, local route loading lanes at the Bellville PTI, the long-distance facility at the Bellville PTI, the Paint City rank, as well as an informal rank in Bellville.

Mzwandile Majangaza, the ring manager at the Paint City taxi rank, says Cata has operated the Mbekweni/Paarl route since 1997. 

In 2016, Codeta entered the scene in response to an increase in public demand as commuters turned to minibus taxis when railway services in the province proved unreliable. 

It was then, Majangaza says, that Codeta started to operate on the Mbekweni route, triggering the turf war.

The Paarl Alliance Taxi Associa­tion, which is affiliated to Codeta, and Cata Boland both claim the right to operate on the B97 route.

Majangaza dismisses claims that Cata members have been firing guns at those belonging to Codeta. “[It’s] not true, we don’t know who is shooting.” 

Despite technically having six operating licences, Majangaza has 37 taxis operating on the B97 route. He admits that most of his taxis are operating illegally, but argues it is “because of the demand [from commuters]”. Illegal operations are a common problem on most Cape Town routes, he adds.

He claims that numerous attempts to apply for more operating licences have failed because he can’t get a “support letter” from the traffic department.

The fate of taxi drivers and operators requiring licences lies with the Provincial Regulatory Entity (PRE). 

“The PRE is responsible for approving and issuing operating licences to operators who apply,” says Jacqueline Gooch, of the department of transport and public works in the Western Cape.

“It is issued by the province but based on information coming [in] and recommendations from the municipality. At the heart of it is a process where the municipality really does need to do demand and supply surveys on what is required on their route.”

A 2018 report titled The Rule of the Gun: Hits and Assassinations in South Africa, released by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime, notes that the government has played both an active and passive role in fuelling taxi violence. 

“The nub of the issue here is said to be operating permits. Interviews suggest that the key problems with the state response are corruption — seen in the illegal and unregulated issuing of operating licences; police corruption and lack of empathy,” the report says.

This aligns with the problems operators like Majangaza, and probably also the provincial government, have to deal with.

Bottleneck: The Cape Town station taxi rank is empty of passengers and vehicles. (David Harrison/M&G)

Codeta spokesperson Lesley Siphukela previously told the Mail & Guardian that using section 91 to close off minibus taxi routes and ranks is not the solution. 

“Cata and Codeta do not want the ranks to be closed. It will also affect the smaller organisations as well and those who are not involved in this fight, as we have already seen,” he said at the time.

In addition to section 91, the public works and transport department is considering approaching the high court to empower the head of transport to place associations that are part of the South African National Taxi Council (Santaco) under administration. 

The department has temporarily cut off its financial support agreement with Santaco. 

It has also suspended its Blue Dot incentive payments to Cata and Codeta, a reward to taxi drivers for improved driving and service, and no violent conflicts.

The Global Initiative 2018 report states that “if those who engage in instrumental violence face few consequences in terms of paying for their crimes, then using this type of violence is likely to become the norm”.

Twenty-three arrests directly linked to taxi violence have been made since January. Western Cape police commissioner Lieutenant General Thembisile Patekile confirmed the cases were before the courts. 

People queue for Golden Arrow buses in Cape Town.

He says a multidisciplinary “taxi investigation team” was established in April, describing it as a “full-fledged” task force.

In July “an even closer relationship” was formed between the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation, better known as the Hawks, and the police organised crime investigation unit in the province, according to Patekile. 

Soldiers stand guard at the Bellville taxi rank, offering protection for the smaller taxi operators that have to continue working. (David Harrison/M&G)

“Let us combine our efforts to deal with these organised syndicates that are within the taxi industry.” 

But, he said, “it does not mean that the taxi violence will stop, because experience has taught us that when we take this group down, a new group is coming up. It is a process.”