By: Taariq Amod
Another week in South Africa during lockdown level 3 has resulted in another impasse between the South African Taxi Association Council (SANTACO) and the state. SANTACO, which represents the majority of taxi owners in the taxi industry, has taken the continual postponement of scheduled meetings with the department of transport, represented by the transport minister Fikile Mbalula, as a slight. In response and in defiance of regulations, they have announced that Taxi’s will fill to a 100% capacity and will now operate long-distance, despite the COVID-19 health risks. Nobody knows when this war will end. However, one thing that is for sure, is that taxi drivers and commuters will bear the brunt of this struggle and the subsequent outcome.
The taxi industry was an unintended creation, borne from the Apartheid state, specifically regarding the Group Areas Act. Apartheid spatial planning and forced removals made it increasingly difficult for black people to access work in the city both economically (The further the distance the higher bus or train fare was charged) and option-wise (There were limited buses and trains operating for black people). This gap was filled by the taxi industry in the 70s and exploded in the late 80s when regulations regarding permits were relaxed.
The taxi industry was revolutionary at the time, in that it represented black defiance and empowerment in a country where black people were extremely economically excluded from the economy. Today, however, the taxi industry represented by SANTACO remains defiant but for different reasons – profit and exploitation.
Today, approximately 42% of South Africans use public transport and out of that portion about 64% use taxis (The latter 21% and 15% use buses and trains respectively). If taxi owners collectively decide to cease operations, millions of South Africans will be unable to reach work or have their usual route to work disrupted due to finding alternatives costing extra time and money.
Alternatively, if government does not offer assistance, many people in the value chain of the taxi industry will be severely negatively affected. Taxi owners in an attempt to recoup losses will fire taxi drivers many of whom are economically disadvantaged and unable to change industries in a short space of time. Taxi owners themselves could default on repayments on the minibus taxis purchased. Banks who financed the vehicles will struggle to sell them either to new individual buyers in the current market or vehicle manufacturers themselves who are themselves going through an economic decline.
Regardless of any outcome or stalemate, the biggest losers are commuters, drivers and even the general public. The response by SANTACO, if left unchallenged by government, could contribute negatively to an already rapidly increasing rate of positive cases of Coronavirus on a national scale. With Taxis having full license to pack as many passengers as they can, with many not adhering to health and safety regulations and with inter-provincial transport occurring, it is hard to see any other outcome than the one mentioned previously.
Economically however, the majority of commuters, working-class people, will again suffer. Many have either lost their jobs and with it their primary source of income or have received salary and wage reductions. Adding to this financial stress are the increased taxi fares. Taxi drivers, will also suffer due to more pressure being exerted to reach targets. Taxi driving is a highly stressful occupation as it is – not only due to reckless driving in pursuit of more fare revenue but also due to the violence that occurs in and around the industry itself over taxi routes. Profits over people reign supreme but are the taxi owners fully to blame?
The government has tried to formalise the taxi industry since the early days of democracy and the closest it has come in that time has been, through its own directives to the taxi industry bosses, the creation of SANTACO to represent the industry’s interests. Whilst the taxi businesses do not currently pay income tax and do not publish financial statements (and thereby very little financial information being made available by them), it is hard to externally estimate what the current losses have been made due to lockdown regulations. Despite this SANTACO has rejected a stimulus package worth R1 billion by government, citing other industries receiving more financial assistance and relaxed regulations by government. This is a valid argument, considering the essential nature and scale of the taxi industry.
Could the solution then be to increase the stimulus package or introduce a subsidy to keep taxi businesses afloat? That might be part of the final deal circumstances notwithstanding. It has not been made clear as to where the stimulus package funds will be directed to and whether this will depend on what the immediate concerns of the taxi owners are. It could be reduced profit margins, net losses incurred or fear of having the vehicle or fleet being repossessed by banks, either way this will not benefit the drivers or commuters – the people who truly need to be compensated during this stressful time. The lives and livelihoods of those affected are more at stake than two entities riddled with corruption and greed.
Taariq Amod is the CEO and founder of Vernac News NPC, and currently resides in Johannesburg. He enjoys political and artistic types of media in written forms such as poetry and critical thinking articles and visual forms through paintings, memes and thought-provoking vlogs.