REGINALD KGWEDI: Taxi violence comes from a political vacuum in public transport

OPINION

South Africa’s public transport system comprises of three modes - bus, train, and the minibus taxis industry. Taxis transport about 67% to 70% of public transport passengers, raises 71% of the total revenue, and receive 0% of subsidies. In comparison, the Gautrain transports 1% of public transport users, raises 7% of the total revenue, and receives 15% of subsidies. Metrorail carries 21% of the passengers, raises 10% of the total revenue, and receives receive 29% of operating subsidies; while buses (conventional, municipal and bus rapid transit [BRT]) transport 11% of passengers, raise 12% of total revenue and receive 56% of operating subsidies, according to an expenditure and performance review prepared for the Presidency.

Based on the number of passengers and the revenue collection, it is evident that the taxi industry is dominant in the public transport system. The industry is a critical pillar of our public transport system, making over 15 million commuter trips daily. It is not only the most available mode of public transport, but the preferred and most affordable to the public at large. This mode of transport offers door-to-door services, and can compete with private cars in terms of travel time from point A to B. This is the industry where black people have control through ownership of taxis and routes.

The biggest challenge for the Department of Transport is the restructuring of the public transportation system, which includes taxis.

There is no public transport without taxis in South Africa. It is the backbone of the public transport system. We have not understood the industry. The dispute in the taxi industry is about routes, and mainly lucrative routes. Government has failed to appreciate the work of the taxi industry and as a result, we are here today. They have failed to create a level playing field. For more than 20 years, we have failed to implement the resolution of the National Taxi Task Team (NTTT), set up by then Transport Minister Mac Maharaj, regarding subsidies and the restructuring of the industry.

There is a leadership vacuum within government. They have neglected some public goods (taxis, in this case) and here we are suffering. If we do not contribute towards the existence of the industry, then we will not see the end of what transpired this week in Cape Town. Such events serve as proof that without minibus taxis, a larger group of the population will be excluded and unable to participate in the economic activities. In such situations, commuters are forced to make alternative transport arrangements but there are no reliable alternative transport means. Metrorail is stuck at a cul-de-sac.

The problem in the taxi industry has also been escalated by the failure of government to integrate public transport for it to become people-oriented as opposed to class-oriented system. The class-oriented public transport is one where you have systems for the middle to upper-class, like Gautrain, MetroPlus Express, etcetera, at the expense of the lower- or working-class people, such as the "normal" Metrorail and minibus taxis. The class-oriented public transport does not consider the wellbeing of people. It does not consider the disutility that comes with travelling under fragmented and dysfunctional systems. Those commuters who rely heavily on public transport are always at the receiving end of the mobility disruptions. If we invested in a people-oriented public transport system where modes complement one another, the playing field would be level; we would not be experiencing such disruptions.

Systematic problems are evident as we keep observing the inequitable allocation of resources and support across the different modes of public transport. We are still not seeing #PublicTransportDedicatedLanes, not only for buses but for the entire public transport system including the taxi industry.

Why are we still expanding roads for private vehicles, when our public transport system is in disarray? We should be moving people, not vehicles. Why are we comfortable with the Gautrain’s “exorbitant” subsidy when in fact it is the taxi industry that has a great market share? We have provided for modes for competition instead of them complementing each other.

Taxi violence as we see it today in Cape Town happens because of the mess created by government, which is in contrast with what has been advocated and defined by the White Paper on Transport Policy for the provision of "safe, reliable, effective, efficient, and fully integrated transport operations and infrastructure”.

WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE?

We are at the centre of a dilemma. A great ingredient to help us resolve this, is “political will”. Political will is important as it was with the construction of the Gautrain, Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project and the BRT systems. This should not only apply where there is vested interest but to all public goods. For this to be realised, we require effort, political support, willingness from both the industry and government.

It is clear that taxi disputes stem from the fight for lucrative routes by taxi operators, negligence of core issues raised by the taxi industry, lack of implementation of integral policy directives and the inequitable allocation of resources for different classes of commuters and modes of public transport. The violence is a warning that financial aid is needed, over and above the operational support required from the government. We hardly see the bus industry in a similar situation of violence, simply because they are supported and subsidised.

Public transport requires subsidies for them to be sustainable. However, these models should be benefiting commuters more than just being a mere scheme. By providing a subsidy to the industry, we would address part of the problem. Subsidisation would bring with it more regulation, limitation, and control. Though this comes with a price, those in the high echelons need to be educated on the role of public transport.

Government should understand and recognise the industry as a complex, dynamic system that needs to be supported. We need to act now or suffer the consequences.

It is time we empower local regulatory authorities with necessary tools, such as the legal or judicial system, to audit the industry and provide adequate enforcement. Any process will continue to face challenges if it is a top-down process and does not consider the nature of work in the industry. The Department of Labour, Department of Transport, the local authorities, and the industry must be able to work closely together on labour related matters, subsidies, route allocation and provide various engagement platforms. We should also establish dedicated structures of inspectors and law enforcement officers for this purpose, which will interact closely with the taxi operators. Such bodies or structures will be able to detect these challenges before they escalate.

It was Amilcar Cabral who said: “Do not confuse the reality you live in with the ideas you have in your head”. Policymakers and practitioners have no user experience and as a result are confusing reality with ideas in their heads. They should have more direct experience with the issues they make policies on and regulate for the better. They should do away with security protocols and use public transport to experience it, then they will know what problems are at hand. We have policymakers who are often trying to be all things to all people or speak left and walk right.

For as long as we are led by people who confuse the ideas in their heads with the reality of the masses, then we are doomed. We have policy makers who have outsourced their thinking capabilities. We have normalised mediocrity; we rely much on people who do not believe in what they preach. We need a new set of leaders in the political space to help the taxi industry succeed in the absence of violence. There is hope.

Reginald Kgwedi is the founder of the Transport and Logistics Students Association (TaLSA). You can follow him on Twitter at @Reginald_Morwa.