/ 15 October 2022

Taxi violence: Bring back law and intelligence

Competition: Police investigate taxi violence in Pretoria. The fighting has resulted in 1 653 deaths in five years. Photo: Alet Pretorius/Gallo Images

The first week of October saw two people shot dead on the popular beach in Camps Bay, Cape Town. One of the victims is believed to be a taxi driver belonging to the Cape Amalgamated Taxi Association.

Although taxi violence is a daily occurrence in many parts of South Africa, there are fears that this incident might cause a renewed taxi war. 

From 2017 to 2022, taxi violence resulted in 1 653 deaths in KwaZulu-Natal, Gauteng and the Western Cape. 

According to the police, Gauteng recorded 697 deaths, followed by 564 in Gauteng and 374 in the Western Cape. 

At the height of renewed taxi violence in the Western Cape in September, Lirandzu Themba, the spokesperson for Police Minister Bheki Cele, said the matter “will be [on] top of the agenda when [Cele] meets with his cabinet counterpart [Fikile Mbalula] responsible for transport for deliberations on the issues and [to] put in necessary interventions”.

The initial meeting, scheduled for 29 August, was postponed indefinitely. On Wednesday, Cele’s office confirmed that the meeting is yet to take place.

From a noisy street in KwaZulu-Natal’s eThekwini metro area, a taxi owner speaks to the Mail & Guardian on condition of anonymity. He has been in the industry since its significant expansion in the late 1980s. Three decades later, he owns two taxis.

Can he expand his business? Only “if it is what the bosses want”, says the taxi owner, referring to the “top dogs”. He explains the chairperson of the association he belongs to pulls the strings. 

Asked about crime, he says he does not feel safe, and that “you try to keep your head down”.

In some associations — of which there are about 250 in KwaZulu-Natal alone — the leaders are “warmongers” and only accept people “who are gunmen and can go to the war” to claim routes.

He says money laundering, armed robberies and the taxi industry are all intertwined. 

And speaking out is not an option. 

“That’s the thing. They do not want anyone to speak out about what they do. Over the years people have lost their lives because of that. There is so much intimidation.”

The taxi owner refers to general meetings where people are told to keep quiet. 

“You consider yourself lucky that you are told to stay quiet. Those who are not told to keep quiet and talk, they won’t last.”

Looking back at what caused the violent and overly competitive taxi industry, the owner recalls the year 1988, when the then taxi representative body, the South African Black Taxi Association (Sabta), voiced its concern against the deregulation of the industry. 

Sabta warned the then government that deregulation would result in “chaos” as the industry will see too many taxi operators entering the market too soon. 

But Sabta’s pleas were ignored. 

When the taxi market became almost a “free for all” in 1987, permits were issued for R100 to R200. Alleged corruption would see permits handed out for far less. 

In a 2001 study, From Low Intensity War to Mafia War: Taxi Violence in South Africa (1987 — 2000), Jackie Dugard quotes how, back in 1987, operating permits were being “issued like confetti” or handed out “like Valentine’s Day cards in February”. 

Not long after 1987, “taxi violence has become more widespread, decentralised and criminal in character”, writes Dugard. 

“Chief among determinants during late apartheid were the rapid deregulation of transport, which precipitated an unchecked rise of taxi associations — itself contributing to the spread of violence, along with various underlying political forces.” 

The study’s general findings in 2001 is a mirror image of the taxi industry two decades later. 

Taxi violence has its roots in the policies of deregulation and destabilisation, according to Dugard, and taking up the role of regulator were taxi associations that “developed as informal agents of regulation, protection and extortion”.

(John McCann/M&G)

In 2021, the commission of inquiry into taxi violence in Gauteng raised concern about the unregulated associations that control the taxi service. 

The commission’s report found that the associations control who gets to join them and the routes as well as dictate where each operator must work. 

They also allow those without operating licences to join.

Dugard found that taxi associations used their firepower and weight to resist government attempts to re-regulate the taxi industry. 

This is similar to events currently taking place in Cape Town, where the stoning and the burning of public transport buses and service delivery trucks are more often than not the result of law enforcement clamping down on unlicensed taxi drivers and unroadworthy taxis. 

Chris de Kock, a crime, violence and crowd behaviour analyst, says: “In reality, every time government tries to regulate [the taxi industry], things actually get worse. Powerful figures do not want the industry to be regulated, they want to dominate the industry. Wherever they need to use violence, they do.”

Dugard also found that official corruption and collusion are major factors that contribute to “the continuation of taxi violence. In particular, the ownership of taxis by police and other government personnel directly aids criminality in the industry and exacerbates attempts to resolve the violence.”

The Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) does not investigate police action related to taxi violence unless corruption, in the form of a cover-up or a docket that has disappeared, is identified, says Lizzy Suping, the spokesperson for the IPID. 

She says the IPID is investigating only one case of corruption related to taxi violence — in the Eastern Cape. 

Dugard’s study found that taxi wars are the result of the rapid deregulation of transport in South Africa. Consequently, the market in which taxis operate is highly competitive and oversaturated.

In provinces where taxi conflicts are most prevalent — Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and Western Cape — statistics suggest a relationship between the number of operating licences and the total arrests, deaths and number of investigations in a province. 

Gauteng — the economic hub of South Africa representing the majority of the workforce in the country — has 41 045 legal operating licences in circulation. 

Over the past five years (2017 to 2022) taxi arrests amounted to 801, while 1 002 taxi-related cases are being investigated. In total, 697 taxi-related deaths occurred during the same period in that province. 

There are 20 158 legally owned taxi permits in KwaZulu-Natal. The past five years saw a relatively low 114 arrests linked to taxi violence. But taxi-related investigations total 521 and deaths exceed 560. 

The spokesperson at the department of transport in KwaZulu-Natal, Kwanele Ncalane, says the province is not issuing any new permits at this stage. 

The Western Cape has the lowest number of permits — 12 704 — in circulation. Fewer investigations (458) and the fewest taxi-related deaths (374) were reported in the province from 2017 to 2022. 

Jandré Bakker, the spokesperson for the department of transport and public works in the Western Cape, ascribes the reasons for violence in the taxi service to the constant recruitment drives by associations, severe overtrading, aggressive competition for passengers, route invasions “and ultimately conflict and a loss of lives”.

“It is common cause that the issuance of operating licences in excess of passenger demand may lead to violence. This will create a supply-driven system with concomitant competition for passengers and violence,” Bakker says. 

Bakker recalls the Ntsebeza Commission of Inquiry in the province, which pointed out the consequences of overtrading. 

“Despite the overtraded nature of certain routes, associations still go out on regular recruitment drives to attract new members,” says Bakker, adding: “These members are charged exorbitant joining fees and are allowed to trade on minibus-taxi routes without holding the required operating licences.”

According to Bakker, the local government is working with the leaders of the South African National Taxi Council to “stop recruitment drives and route invasions”. 

Willem Els, an analyst at the Institute for Security Studies, says that to stop taxi violence, conflict and crime networks that accompany the industry, the rule of law must be enforced. 

“Without proper regulations and proper enforcement of regulations and legislation you will never win it,” says Els. He adds that a strong intelligence basis to strategically dismantle the networks is also critical. 

Similar to Els, De Kock believes the industry must be regulated and intelligence must be rebuilt and revamped.

In the late 1990s and beginning of 2000s there was better control over taxis and much less violence than the mid-1990s and “that was because not only crime intelligence was looking at taxi violence and who is involved in it, including police officers, but also the then national intelligence had a specific priority that was taxi violence”. 

The hotspot areas — Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape — have six provincial policing task teams focusing on taxi violence. Gauteng has three, KwaZulu-Natal two and the Western Cape has one taxi violence unit. 

Even though calls for a regulated taxi service came from people in the industry and ultimately led to the 2021 commission of inquiry in Gauteng, the indomitable minibus taxi industry remains unregulated.