Taxis or taxidermists, stuffing up the transport industry?

Taxis or taxidermists, stuffing up the transport industry?

The restructuring of South Africa’s public transport infrastructure is one of the biggest challenges facing the Department of Transport – but the startling statistics and pictures of horrific crashes so often used to portray the minibus taxi industry only tell half the story. JACO DE KLERK delves into the taxi business.

You’re driving along when a minibus taxi (looking as if the masking tape on it is the only thing keeping everything together) slams on its brakes, right there in the middle of the road, to let a load of people out. Most South African road users have experienced this scenario – and it’s partly what evokes unfavourable feelings among motorists for this form of public transportation.

But the minibus taxi industry does represent a model of successful black economic self-empowerment. It is the only sector where black South Africans control an entire segment of the public transport industry, and it serves as a critical pillar for commuters. It is undoubtedly the most available and affordable mode of transport to the South African public.

In 1987, the Apartheid government lifted some economic policies, bringing about a boom in the taxi industry. Before this, public transportation was strictly regulated and all minibus operations were illegal. The formal deregulation of policies meant that passenger vans could be officially used for commuter purposes. And there was a need – created by industrialisation, which saw numerous South Africans relocating to cities in their search for employment.

The demand for cheap transportation was high, and the popularity of these taxis grew. Unlike other public transport options, they ran late-night services, travelled to previously-unserviced areas, picked commuters up and dropped them off reasonably close to their destinations, and made convenience stops during long trips. Importantly, their fares were inexpensive and they cut down the time spent in long queues at bus and train stations.

Taxis or taxidermists, stuffing up the transport industry?However, the absence of regulations for this sector brought about some problems. Drivers began to exploit various means at their disposal, including illegal ones, to get more lucrative routes and better ranking facilities in an attempt to get a bigger piece of the pie. Various taxi operators joined forces to form local associations in an attempt to address these problems, as well as to mediate loading practices and prices.

It was, however, not long before these associations began to use their organisational strength – and even violence – to gain additional income, leading to the need for some statutory body to govern the sector.

This led to the establishment of the South African Taxi Council (SATACO) even before the country’s first democratic election in 1994. The Council served as a platform for the representation of all associations within the taxi industry. In 1995, government created the National Taxi Task Team (NTTT), which recommended that the taxi industry and government enter into a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU). This initiative stated that if the industry complied with the necessary regulations and legislation, that government would economically empower taxi services through formalisation.

The MoU was, however, revised by the late Transport Minister Dullah Omar through the incorporation of structures that operated outside the parameters of SATACO. This revised MoU was signed in April 2001 by the three structures in the taxi industry at the time – SATACO, the Provincial Taxi Councils (PROTACOs) and the National Taxi Alliance (NTA) – as well as government on a national and provincial level. All parties committed themselves to bringing about lasting unity within the minibus taxi industry based on transparency, integrity and the establishment of a united body representing the industry democratically.

When SATACO didn’t meet its mandate of ensuring that a democratically elected body be put in place, the National Conference Preparatory Committee (NCPC) was formed. It consisted of Omar, the nine provincial MECs and various members of the taxi industry. In September 2001, the South African National Taxi Council (SANTACO) was established, under the watchful eye of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), at the national conference held in Durban.

The formation of SANTACO saw the election of a National Executive Committee under the presidency of Thomas Muofhe, marking a new beginning for the administration and representation of the taxi industry in South Africa. This institution aims to unite the interests of operators, commuters and government alike through various initiatives and action plans.

Despite the progress, many operators still do not co-operate – operating unroadworthy vehicles and running illegal services that result in taxi violence. But even this doesn’t justify the loathing other road users usually have for this sector of public transportation.

Travelling at excessive speeds may fuel perceptions that the taxi industry is dangerous and menacing, but this (together with low fees) is exactly what passengers using this transport are looking for. The industry accounts for 65 percent of all public transport in South Africa, with buses holding a 20 percent share and trains 15 percent.

However, speed and the unroadworthiness of some vehicles does present a point of concern for the safety of passengers. A study conducted by the Automobile Association of South Africa found that there are 70 000 minibus taxi crashes annually, indicating that this industry is responsible for twice as many crashes than all other passenger vehicles combined. There is also insufficient data to pinpoint a clear reason for the number of fatalities when a taxi accident occurs, obstructing progress in addressing this problem.

The number of taxi crashes should, however, be weighed against the sheer number of these vehicles within the country, amounting to an estimated 150 000. These are distributed between more than
20 000 owners. The sector employs around 200 000 people. If there are more taxis than buses or trains, there will naturally be more accidents involving taxis.

It should also be considered that taxis are subjected to much tougher operating conditions than the average passenger vehicle. Drivers work to meet strict daily requirements, both in terms of trips made and passengers ferried, because this directly affects their earnings.

Despite these severe conditions, only three of the 36 lives lost daily on South African roads are due to taxi-related incidents. It is true that every death due to a road accident is an outrage, but the numbers show that the Department of Transport and other motorists can’t put all the blame on minibus taxis.

It’s clear that the minibus taxi industry is an important player in our society and economy, and shouldn’t be neglected or judged so harshly. This part of the country’s public transport infrastructure does have a long way to go before it reaches the levels of service it should be providing to commuters – but then, so does the entire industry.

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