As South Africa pushes ahead with an ambitious plan to regulate its lucrative minibus-taxi industry, operators say the move will lead to increased joblessness.
Successive attempts by the government to regulate the booming industry have so far failed, and associations of taxi-owners now control almost every aspect of the business.
Violence has occasionally erupted between rival associations over control of the more lucrative routes, leaving scores of drivers and passengers dead or injured after being shot or caught in the crossfire. A recently commissioned report on taxi violence in the Western Cape province found that taxi-associations used money collected from operators to pay bribes to officials and even to recruit hit men.
The most recent government strategy for reining in this unruly but vital industry is the Department of Transport's five-year 'Taxi Recapitalisation Programme', which aims to replace most of the older and unsafe 'mobile coffins' as they are sometimes called, with larger, properly registered vehicles, equipped with an array of safety devices.
As an incentive for turning in their old vehicles, the government is offering taxi-operators a 'scrapping allowance' of R50,000 ($7,935). This is significantly more than most of the vehicles are worth, but far less than the new 18-seater minibuses are likely to cost. According to the Department of Transport, 37,000 vehicles have already been turned in but the new replacements will only be available in January 2006.
Sicelo Mabaso, chairman of Top Six Taxi Management, which represents over 100 taxi-associations and their members, wonders how taxi-operators will afford the new vehicles and why the new safety requirements, which include seatbelts, rollover bars and a device that prevents vehicles from driving at more than 100 km per hour, cannot simply be installed in the current vehicles over a period of time.
"The government has made an issue out of nothing," he said. "What we need in South Africa is better training for the drivers - all this fancy stuff they're going to add may not be the answer if the driver is not properly trained."
The industry's biggest concern is that the recapitalisation programme will lead to widespread job losses.
"For the taxi-operator today to make a living - the profit margin is very slim," Mabaso said. "If the South African government is not careful, the taxi industry is going to add to the very high percentage of unemployment we have, because obviously they'll have to retrench if they can't sustain themselves."
In recent years the industry has absorbed many workers retrenched by other sectors, resulting in an ever-increasing number of taxis on the road and fiercer competition for routes and fares.
Collen Msibi, a spokesperson for the Department of Transport, argues that in the long term, government regulation and subsidies will reduce such competition, making the industry more sustainable to operators and more affordable to passengers.
A second aim of the recapitalisation programme is to transfer control of the taxi ranks and routes from the associations to government-appointed regulatory authorities and, eventually, integrating the industry into the formal public transport sector. Operators have until 30 November to convert their old permits, which allowed them to operate taxis anywhere within a certain radius, into operating licenses that limit them to specific routes for specific vehicles.
Until now, operators have paid the associations for the right to certain routes.
The associations use 'squad' cars to monitor the routes they control, and 'discipline' any drivers caught on routes they have not paid for. Under the new programme, law enforcement officers will be responsible for fining drivers who cannot produce the appropriate operating license.
"The associations were introduced in order to represent the interests of taxi-operators, so there are positive things they do," Msibi said. "But in terms of paying for routes, we believe that has to stop."
Several associations IRIN spoke to expressed their intention of resisting government attempts to encroach on their hard-won turf.
"These routes were not created by government," Mabaso said. "We used our taxis as graders to make these routes; we put in the infrastructure - now there are routes that are viable, the government wants to take over. How much are they going to pay us for our goodwill?"
Grace Molefe, general secretary of Soweto Taxi Services, which controls 64 routes and over 2,000 taxis and is the largest association in Johannesburg's sprawling main township, is opposed to any government intervention beyond mediating between competing associations.
"The government must just forget about taking over the taxi ranks and routes," she said.
At a downtown Johannesburg taxi rank a group of drivers killing time until the rush-hour voiced their resentment of what they consider government interference.
"The taxi-route system mustn't change or we won't be able to work," said Thabo, who has been a driver for six years. "The government might say, 'you work here', where there's no money - the association must control that."
Frank, who has been driving taxis for 18 of his 36 years, says his association represents the law: if another driver threatens him, it is the association he goes to before the police; if he is caught drinking on the job, it is his association that will discipline him. Frank even observes the association's strict rules governing driver attire.
"We need the associations," he explained. "It's like a father and a mother: they tell you what to do and look after you. We come from different nations - Zulu, Xhosa, Swazi - but we have one mother, STS [Soweto Taxi Services]."
Frank's workday begins at 4 a.m. and typically ends at 7 p.m. He occasionally takes Sundays off, but is mindful that doing so will eat into his weekly earnings, which fluctuate according to how many fares he takes and which routes he drives.
After paying his boss R300 ($48) a week for the use of the vehicle and buying additional petrol (his boss only pays for one tank a day) he is left with around R400 ($63) a week to support himself and his three children.
If he is lucky, he will make it through the week without getting any tickets for stopping illegally to unload passengers, or having a bald tire, or lacking a permit - all offences he has to pay for out of his own pocket.
The recent introduction of a minimum wage and maximum working hours for taxi-drivers means little to Frank, whose boss has not registered him. "If you stay home you don't eat," he shrugged. "Driving the taxi is better than nothing."
For the majority of residents in Johannesburg's townships, who do not own cars, minibus-taxis are the only practical and affordable transport option. Unlike buses and trains, which only make scheduled stops at set times, a minibus-taxi will pick them up and drop them off at just about any street corner at most times of the day.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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