“Please write an article on the taxi-recapitalisation programme… what it really entails and why taxi operators are up in arms about it, probably for the March 2007 issue, although it’s quite topical now. By then, some progress will hopefully have been made. “It should discuss why and when the programme was introduced, implementation date, cost to government and taxi operators, operators’ response during this time (last week of Nov ’06) 的士收費 and the chaos and violence caused on the roads, etc; where progress with the programme will stand by January/February and the road forward. Negative comments by experts infer that the programme treats the symptoms and not the causes: lack of driver training, non-roadworthy vehicles, overloading, ineffective policing, etc. “
Forgive me my levity, but herein lies an entire research project and a history that dates back to the early ’50s. I don’t have all the answers to hand and won’t be taking six months to assimilate them. Taxi violence, though, has been with us for two decades plus and the taxi industry has also taken considerable blame for the train violence experienced during the ’80s.
My collection of 66 news clippings from 2005 (and a filed copy of the Minister’s speech) exists because I proposed a research survey on what taxi drivers and operators actually understood and thought about the process. At the time, research funding for Transport/Traffic/Road Safety was completely discontinued. Taxi operators are still striking a year later, which, I believe, says something about government’s understanding and perception of feelings on the street.
At its inception, during the mid-’90s, ‘taxi recap’ was considered a ‘done deal’. It still is. The only real problem with that appears to be the refusal of the industry to do, without question, exactly as it’s told to do. ‘Done deal’ or not, doing takes a lot longer than planned!
Space allows only a rough explanation of some of the factors leading to the present, but there can be very few South Africans who have managed to play ‘ostrich’ efficiently enough to have ‘taxi recap’ pass overhead, unnoticed. By virtue of their profession, the traffic fraternity should already have, at least, a vague understanding of the processes involved.
By the late ’50s, the black taxi industry was already a reality in Alexandria and Soweto. The vehicles generally used to transport paying passengers were large sedans of the Cadillac/Valiant variety. The industry may initially have begun when one Mr Big Shot, extremely-proud-second-hand-vehicle-owner, realised that running a car costs far more than polishing it and watching it stand idle.
In a world where few families owned a second car, and most people relied on public transport to get to and from work (bus and train services were not much better then, than now), most jobs required daily trips to a common destination. Suburbs and townships were residential facilities only. Industry and business knew its place – in the heart of city centres – and presented the practical possibility of car ‘pooling’ to share commuter costs.
The original minibus taxis were second- or third-hand VW ‘Combis’ that had risen to fame in the flower power era, when students could live, love and lubricate from interior foam mattresses. They were then discovered by those mums whose sole, practical, out-of-home function was to negotiate the daily school taxi rounds. Once they moved on, by the late ’70s/early ’80s, a pay-per-person ‘khaya’ taxi industry became a reality.
Initially, trips were over short distances, but later, long-distance passengers began converting from train for their bi-annual trips back to rural villages and different provinces. Taxis would be stacked high with cases, bags, mattresses, furniture and animals (for slaughter); luggage that would have been rejected by rail authorities – and voila! South Africa had found its very own, unique, distinctive, mode of transport.
While it is true that Apartheid showed far too much concern about what was actually carried in minibus taxis (regular, road-block army searches uncovered an endless supply of weapons during the ‘struggle’ years) it virtually ignored the industry’s core function: transporting people.
Train and bus services were invidiously replaced by taxi services, especially as industrial and business areas mushroomed across the landscape, suburbs and rural areas. It became too much trouble for the authorities to run several different public transport routes, and the more easily maneuvered taxis serviced a desperate market. Long-distance rail services became obsolete, although a vicious war between short-distance rail, bus and taxi commuter services was declared.
Violence on trains and buses forced passengers to patronise the taxi industry and wherever sufficient custom could not be found to fill the cabs, it seemed that shots were sure to follow… drivers and associations apparently poached each others’ territor and were merciless to the paying public. Probably as many people fell off trains, as fell into SAP/army hands.
The ANC had overthrown an entire nationalised dynastic policy; its populace was wildly delighted with the party’s overwhelming success and bubbled with approval. Who better to invoke new rules of law? During the initial post-1994 honeymoon period, all appeared quite quiet on the taxi front. Had the governing party moved quickly, they may have found transformation really easy. But they delayed.
I guess they just didn’t realise that their ‘freedom’ would be compromised by regulation. And once they realised, they didn’t particularly like it. (My personal theory is that our revolution is still alive and well: military rule so often crushes resistance; benevolence allows dissention to carry on thriving. ) Concerned citizens, although somewhat slow to digest the enormity of the possible consequences that the original taxi recap plan conveyed, now continually voice their objections, in a manner that gets results.
While the initial taxi recap plan doubtless intended to improve travel for the average citizen, certain features of the plan were so astounding, it is amazing that it managed to find its way onto paper without serious, public contention and outcry. How any free-market country could seriously believe itself entitled to dictate which brand people are entitled to buy and which bank they are entitled to borrow from, is ludicrous, but that’s how it all began.
Dot, having set specifications to improve safety conditions (overloaded, top-heavy taxis were inclined to roll easily and had no seatbelts, for instance) proposed putting the replacement vehicles out to a limited number of manufacturers for development, via a tender process. The war was on and at least one manufacturer went insolvent competing with the ‘big guys’ for the pleasure of government’s business.
Thankfully, it was later decided to adapt and allow all interested manufacturers the opportunity to develop vehicles that met the specifications, and to allow taxi operators to decide for themselves which brand to buy and which bank package to contract to. Since manufacturers could no longer be sure of the numbers involved, prices, also always at the mercy of the economy, rose accordingly.
Specification changes occurred at intervals along the way: only diesel-powered vehicles are now acceptable, for instance, to help contain the high volume of crude-oil imports. The motor industry is committed to the success of the programme, but then, why wouldn’t they be? There are high profits to be made…
The SA National Taxi Council (Santaco), doubtless ANC aficionados with struggle affiliations, put their money and faith into the Russian 16-seater GAZelles. These were initially sold for R179 900 VAT inclusive, but appear to have cost their 3 000 to 5 000 new owners dearly.
Labelled ‘death traps’, there are concerns as to how they passed SABS specification checks and are said to spend more time off the road than on. Who’s biting the bullet now, Santaco? Or must Gorky, GAZ SA and McCarthy face the firing squad on account of the vehicle’s fourth recall (deadlined for March 2007)?
Tata and Mahindra also joined the race and access to Indian spares will hopefully be better than to Russian ones. Whatever the make, model or specifications of new vehicles, if they are regularly overloaded, not suitably regulated/enforced, are not driven competently or maintained well, their ability to keep death off our roads will be nil and we can expect to experience déjà vu once their warranties expire.
When results of a survey into household transport usage were tabled in Parliament (September 2005) distressing levels of dissatisfaction with all three major public transport modes, were revealed, with the minibus taxi industry labelled the worst offender. Of the nearly 2. 5-million people who regularly commute to work, by taxi, 30% appear to regard their personal safety (due to crime, bad driver behaviour, or motor accidents) to be at serious risk.
As a virtually immediate (for government) result, the taxi industry sped into 2005 at a reduced speed limit of 100km/h. This aimed to reduce the high percentage of people-carrying vehicles that are involved in fatal crashes. By August of the same year, the ‘big possibility’ of advanced driver training for taxi drivers was revealed by Santaco.
Of which, not one word more has appeared in the media, since! Also dropped from the wish list, was a national electronic management system: declared ‘too advanced’ for the still-developing world. This single omission appears incredibly relevant to the original objective of regulating the taxi industry.
Without efficient regulation, it has become notorious for anarchy, instability, corruption and mafia-type operations around lucrative routes. Curbing the free-for-all is essential. If the process compromises our national devotion to ‘African’ time, disregard for pre-arranged obligations, total onus for regulation and enforcement immediately reverts to the traffic officer on the ‘beat’.
It is this lack of effective regulation that causes violence to punctuate the industry’s effectiveness. The job functions of traffic authorities make it impossible for them to curb taxi violence. Officers do not go out in large numbers, as a fighting force, with protective shields and in military formation. They are easier to pick off, one by one, than stray mosquitoes in the midday heat.
And they know it! It’s not what they signed up for. Expecting an isolated traffic officer to deal with organised crime is a bit like sending a girl guide into a war zone to effect peace. (Sorry, Guys; no offence meant). The military structure, through which they deliver, does not make them an effective hit squad!
Transport has seen a turnover of three Ministers: Maharaj, with the vision, Omar, who appeared to delay and Radebe, who has determined to play out the scenario. Much of the delay was caused by the high budget needed to accomplish the deed and the ‘recap’ budget, together with additional resources of R885-million, to improve traffic law enforcement, was finally granted, in Parliament in February 2005.
Since the original figure of R100 000 per scrapped vehicle was touted, it has been halved. Either the taxi ‘park’ has grown (doubtless) or the number of taxis had been miscalculated. Ten years on, vehicle prices have risen more than most of us imagined. The delay in delivery has caused the media to wonder whether Transport had “bitten off more than it could chew” (when R7. 7-billion was approved by cabinet in August 2005).
A R250-million allocation was to be used to establish ‘scrapping’ systems in 2005, deputy director-general of public transport at National Dot confirmed in March of that year. He later (it was whispered) succumbed to death threats from within the taxi industry and moved on, but not before the minister and Santaco had confirmed their readiness to begin the process by April, after the tender had been allocated.