“I swear all taxi drivers were born and raised by the same mother,” my Uncle Billy once cursed when a rattling, yellow heap of a Nissan E20 minibus taxi bulleted passed us, enveloping our blue skoro-skoro Chevy station wagon in a swirling blur of dust.
Seconds later, the taxi veered towards us, almost causing us to careen off the road as it tried to avoid ploughing into an oncoming 10-tonne sugarcane truck. If that wasn’t enough, a minute later it screeched to a halt unexpectedly in front of us, forcing Bongumusa, my big brother, to navigate oncoming traffic as we missed smashing what was left of the rattling “coffin on wheels” by a whisker.
We were driving on the notorious gravel and taxi-violence infested roads of Maphumulo in KwaZulu-Natal. This was back in the early 1990s when I was a boy.
Decades later my uncle is not the only one with this observation. It would seem taxi drivers are all cut from the same cloth. South Africans disagree about many things, but we unite in our collective condemnation of taxi-driver delinquency on our roads.
Whether it is overloading, speeding through a red robot, driving above the speed limit, careening on the shoulder on the wrong side of the yellow line or driving over a traffic cone, traffic cop or whatever, we agree that taxi drivers treat road rules as mere suggestions.
Don’t get me started with the taxi violence that took my Uncle Bheki’s life and, as recently as last year, that of my cousin, Senzo.
Yet we cannot do without taxis. Our economy and taxis are like a cantankerous couple that can’t live with or without each other. Taxis have been, and continue to be, the lifeblood of our economy and, just like most South Africans, I grew up reliant on them.
With the current impasse between the government and the taxi industry, let’s take a peek at the root of the love-hate relationship that our government has had and continues to have with the taxi industry.
From its inception, the taxi industry has been the illegitimate child of our transport system. It was neglected by its father, the apartheid government, and this has also been the case with its stepfather, our democratic government. Like most illegitimate children, the taxi industry was unplanned, not budgeted for and born out of convenience, not commitment.
Let me explain.
The apartheid-era government’s spatial planning had moved people to out-of-the-way places in an attempt to create a racially divided nirvana.
Even so, cheap black labour was still needed to service white households and lubricate the wheels of the urban economy.
Compounded by the fact that few South Africans could afford to own a car, the taxi industry was born. In the absence of a carefully thought-through cohesive government plan, the taxi routes were drawn with blood. Izinkabi (hitmen), the bullet, and the spear were the trusted tools of taxi route formation. The government of the time did not care about the violence, as long as there was peace in the economic hubs and white areas.
The “savages” could continue killing each other. In many ways, it aided the narrative of the apartheid government that black people were unfit to govern themselves. As long as the economy functioned to the benefit of white people, the lack of regulation and government intervention continued.
As early as the 1950s, the state began to subsidise African worker transport — buses and trains. Of course, as in many households, the legitimate children got a seat at the dinner table and the illegitimate ones fought for scraps or got nothing at all. And so, taxis got nothing.
Until 1994, most ranks and commuter pick-up points were built for buses, not taxis. In competing for commuters with subsidised buses, taxis took to speed, the ability to stop anywhere to pick up passengers. And so a culture of lawlessness was born.
When democracy dawned, the new government had no idea what to do with the problem child.
The problem got bigger, not better. The delinquent child had grown older and bitter, with serious behavioural issues. The stepfather, after many failed attempts to integrate the illegitimate child with his family, gave up and focused on his legitimate children.
He did this despite taxis being the most used transport in South Africa. According to Statistics South Africa, 76.7% of households use public transport and taxis — with taxis accounting for 67%.
Disturbingly, the legitimate kid on the rails, the Gautrain, transports less than 1% of commuters and yet receives R1.6-billion a year in government subsidies (15% of national transport subsidies), according to an expenditure and performance review prepared for the presidency.
It is clear that the democratic government has failed the taxi industry, not only now during the Covid-19 pandemic, but for decades.
There is a saying, “never waste a good crisis”, and I hope the stepfather will step up by thinking long and hard about how to effectively correct past wrongs by regulating, subsidising and formalising the taxi industry.
As long as convenience keeps the government from looking at the mess honestly, without political expediency, the illegitimate child will keep gate-crashing and disrupting the dinner party.