POLITICS

Taxi wars in the WCape

Rebecca Sibanda says violence related to this industry has recently escalated dramatically

TAXI VIOLENCE IN THE WESTERN CAPE

The rate of violence linked to taxi wars in the Western Cape has risen alarmingly. It has been reported that between April 2018 and June 2018, 45 people died due to taxi violence, compared to 22 deaths over the same period in 2017. The situation has escalated to the point where the Police Minister, Bheki Cele, threatened to shut down the problematic taxi ranks and routes if taxi-related killings continued.

This violence and the possibility of a shut-down does not only impact the lives of commuters and taxi operators. It also threatens the economic livelihood of the approximately 15 million people who rely on taxis daily, as a means by which to travel, for example, to and from their places of employment. As a result, the Western Cape Department of Transport called for hearings aimed at investigating the root causes of the violence, and a report on the same is expected on 6 July 2018.

This is not the first time the province has been plagued by taxi-related violence. In 2005, a wave of deaths and injuries because of violence in the Western Cape taxi industry led the provincial government to establish the Committee of Inquiry into the Underlying Causes of Instability and Conflict in the Minibus Taxi Industry in the Cape Town Metropolitan Area (the Committee).  The Committee conducted hearings across the Western Cape, both public and private, as well as independent research.

It was tasked with establishing the underlying reasons for the violence, as well identifying those responsible for the violence and finally, establishing the structural and institutional factors contributing to the violence. The Committee had assistance from investigative police officers who had been involved in the cases leading up to the establishment of the Committee. 

The Committee found that a culture of lawlessness permeated the industry, making taxis unsafe for commuters and operators, as well as making it easy for warlords to undermine the Rule of Law with impunity. For example, the blind eye turned by the South African Police Service (SAPS) to unroadworthy vehicles operating intra-township routes after they are deemed unroadworthy, as opposed to operating on heavily monitored main routes. In addition, a culture of fear and silence was pervasive in the industry.

Evidence of gang involvement in intimidation, and of warlords being paid to carry out hits, illustrated the gravity of the situation. This was exacerbated by the culture of entitlement on the parts of the taxi operators, as well as arbitrarily exorbitant taxi association membership fees - to the tune of as much as R60 000 - without which, one cannot operate taxis. 

The Committee also found a lack of law enforcement and dereliction of duty by the City of Cape Town in that they abandoned the ranks to taxi associations. Testimony was given that alluded to extreme levels of corruption at SAPS, which meant that many taxi-related criminal cases went unsolved and known offenders continued to operate. Corruption and the willingness to award licences - even when the concerned routes were overtraded at the Provincial Licensing Board - was also identified as a major contributor.

Taxi associations basically decide who operates and thus gets a license, as opposed to the Licensing Board operating without influence. The Traffic Department and the City Transport Department do not impound obviously unroadworthy vehicles. This corruption allowed the unlawful conduct to fester and go relatively unchecked. These and other issues were identified by the Committee in 2006 as matters to be addressed if the City had any hope of remedying the violence. 

The Committee recommended the establishment of a dispute resolution body to mediate between taxi associations when disputes arose. It also recommended an overhaul of the Licensing Board and the establishment of a cooperative investigative team comprising of SAPS, the South African Revenue Service (SARS), the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) and the State Security Agency (formerly, the National Intelligence Agency). The Committee also recommended more efficient and accurate registration of taxi associations and their membership, and well as a more active and visible role to be played by law enforcement. 

In 2018, the provincial Transport Department has again opened the floor for hearings with the hope of identifying the root cause of taxi violence, yet the Committee’s report was submitted over 10 years ago. 

As it stands, there is no evidence that its recommendations were implemented.  The lack of urgency in ensuring that the lives of both affected groups are protected speaks to the absence of a human rights culture aimed at serving and protecting the safety and security of commuters and operators, their dignity, and their economic stability. The violence has far-reaching consequences for the average commuter, as minibus taxis account for 29% of all public transport users in the Western Cape. Nationally, taxis carry more commuters than the bus and railway services combined. 

Despite the above numbers, one glaring issue is that the minibus taxi service (according to the Centre for Competition Regulation and Economic Development  and the Helen Suzman Foundation) is not subsidised and this was identified as a reason for the thriving corruption in the industry. Taxi drivers operate recklessly and are often met with a lukewarm response as their modus operandi is one that has become part of South Africa’s societal framework. There is a need to take decisive and swift action in response to this problem as it is not localised to Cape Town. More than 60 taxi bosses and operators died in the Eastern Cape between 2015 and 2017 and this is compounded by the lack of capacity on the part of SAPS to manage taxi violence.  There have been multiple injuries and deaths in KwaZulu-Natal as well. 

The Constitution obliges the State to ensure the safety and security of all and guarantees the right for people to be free of all forms of violence. The proliferation of increasingly violent experiences for taxi commuters and their operators begs the question: should the taxi industry be legislated afresh? It seems that current policy and law enforcement are unable to combat the criminal elements that continue to feed the violence. Or, is this violence another mirror pointed at the State, exposing more deeply-rooted corruption. This leaves, as always, the most vulnerable of our society at the mercy of a system which speaks equality and dignity, but fails to deliver. 

Rebecca Sibanda is Legal Assistant, Centre for Constitutional Rights.