Taxi 'Recap' – The Short Version; Part 2

“Our focus [is] on taxi operators who intend to exit the industry and…is certainly about ensuring that we do not destroy vehicles that still have value.”

Delays in the program were attributed to owners holding onto their old vehicles until compensation became available, but ongoing indecision about necessary specifications delayed the manufacturing process. Factory floors can never afford to remain idle, in anticipation of final decisions that never seem to be finalized. Production is planned months ahead and one ‘run’ must be completed before another can begin.

The government was called on to subsidies the industry in the same manner as it does urban rail and buses. Mass action was threatened. When this happens, taxis are not the only public transport that comes to an abrupt halt: strikers stone buses and have been accused of deliberately sabotaging rail services. Intimidation tactics work very well on average citizens, who subsequently also lose income because they are too fearful to venture out to work.

“…applications for conversion of permits into operating licenses…for transfers and upgrade, including those applications made during the Be Legal Campaign [have not been processed].”

Permit issues became cause for fury on both sides of the fence. Authorities officiously claimed that operators were delaying, but instances, where processing channels, meant to deliver within three months, were taking “three to five years” were then exposed. Decisive action was demanded by the Minister. But little glitches are part of process when the tendered management allocation is only R250-million.

“many taxi operators…bring to my attention the serious weaknesses that characterize(s) many of the Operating Licensing Boards in the Provinces.”

Applications finally closed in the latter part of 2006, only a year later than originally planned. Operators at last began seriously to calculate the affordability of the new vehicles on offer.

Making the price right

“For us, a strong, safe and vibrant taxi industry remains a vital element in Government’s efforts to bring about significant improvements in our public transport system.”

The initial taxi recap plan to tender manufacture, relied on high numbers keeping the prices low. When that option fell away, government no longer had any control over the pricing and since then, their only task has been to lobby in defense of an often non-creditworthy market.

The total cost of replacing the 100 000 fleet is estimated at R15-billion. Wesbank pledged R3.6-billion to the cause over five years, whilst a memorandum of understanding was signed by ABSA, Nedbank, Asset Finance, Standard Bank, DaimlerChrysler Services and Santaco.

“…affordability will be determined by other important factors such as the level of competition in the market, willingness and ability of the financial institutions to develop differentiated products suitable to the taxi industry.”

The law regarding Road Accident Fund (RAF) payouts has recently changed to limit the benefits that can be obtained by claimants, but the possibility exists for players in the taxi industry to access top-up public- and passenger-liability cover.

Should the industry consider this, it should be said that their contributions could be high and the limits imposed on insured providers could achieve more to regulate the industry, than the government: clauses could include the need to prove regular vehicle maintenance and safety checks, regular driver training, permit restrictions, regular driver health checks, etc.

“The taxi industry should also be in a better position to negotiate better terms from both the financial institutions and manufacturers.”

The other change that might possibly rock the nation would be that all vehicles on hire purchase must legally be insured. In theory, this sounds like a revelation, since few taxis presently are. But don’t hold your breath and do cancel dreams of insurance payouts in cases of taxi crashes! Rumour has it that, with the increase in vehicle purchases, a new phenomenon has already hit the country.

Apparently, our car pounds are filling with crashed vehicles whose private owners cancelled their insurance despite the fact that those vehicles still belong to the banks that financed them. The vehicles are repossessed as soon as they are involved in accidents, neither use to man nor beast. Since the majority of these vehicles were privately purchased, it seems logical that the same tactic may be adopted by the taxi fleet.

“It is the taxi operators, and not Government, who are ultimately responsible for their businesses and for the choice of vehicles, and as such will still make their business decisions.”

Taxi owners reeled under the Taxi Sector Agreement at the end of April 2005, which defines issues such as working hours, unemployment insurance and minimum wages (between R945 to R1 350 a month; hardly exorbitant) for rank cleaners, marshals and taxi drivers, for the first time.

Unsurprisingly, taxi operators immediately sunk their teeth again into the question of receiving government subsidies in line with rail and bus transport. This is surely their due, and the Minister agrees, but that will require of operators, stricter adherence to government regulations – a game two sides can play. Mind you, buses have also got away with ‘murder’ through the years, so perhaps the theory will not match the practice!

“I hope and trust that the taxi industry will organize itself into appropriate business models and take advantage of this economic opportunities.”

One bright idea for financing the taxi sector came from the Sowetan (Taxi industry could go public and flourish, 4/8/2005) with the suggestion that the taxi industry form a co-op with each member’s contribution being his approved vehicle(s) to be valued at a ‘share’ percentage. Should the co-op then go public, shares could be traded to raise the finance to buy the new vehicles.

I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry at that. Surely it’s not possible to contribute something one doesn’t own into a co-operative that would surely belong only to the banks, have a value attributed to your (which is really mainly their) contribution (when your ownership is only R 50 000 of the total value) and then raise money from independents to buy what you have already contributed although it was never yours to contribute.

Don’t think I’d take a risk on shares like that, but it is possible, I suppose that black economically empowered individuals would back such a deal, doubtless in the interests of economic empowerment, although I would have to add that it would be in their interest to ensure that the money raised from the shares went directly to the finance houses, without passing ‘Go’.

“Municipalities are responsible for the provision of public transport infrastructure and facilities…[often] approved without due cognizance given to public transport requirements.”

Durban and Gauteng are already planning to incorporate the taxi industry into such initiatives as single ticketing strategies: allowing commuters to switch modes of public transport while using the same ticketing system. Not only does this option allow for greater regulation, but many commuters who buy season/monthly tickets, will be able to convert, when their first choice of public transport operators, takes time out to march.

Delivering the vision

One of the difficulties that arises from the three tiers of government is the different perspective that each tier has. National government has the vision, which generally, from the hallowed halls of Pretoria, is pretty benign. Provinces have the difficulty of interpreting the vision for local benefit and often finding that it is not always very pragmatic or ‘do-able’ for local government to achieve.

“…the lack of effective planning frameworks between the three spheres of Government…the absence of planned public transport systems…”

With so many municipalities in financial difficulties and unable to account for their budgets, it is easier to make demands from on high than to deliver the service and pay the bills incurred in so doing. The taxi industry, as an informal sector, has historically and notoriously made up the rules as it went along and municipalities seldom have the ability to maintain the status quo at their pleasure.

For instance: taxis might take over a spare piece of ground at a freeway off-ramp, as a rank, simply because the position is close to an industrial area and therefore convenient to commuters. The local municipality can hardly build a formal rank on a freeway verge, or accommodate any other public transport modes in the same limited area.

“…we see informal taxi ranks mushrooming around major shopping malls, with provision made for parking, but without any consideration for pedestrians and public transport inter-modal facilities for buses and taxis.”

The only suitable land may lie half-a-dozen kilometres away and both taxi drivers and commuters are put out when they find their informal rank is no longer accessible and that their daily journeys must be broken one more time, each way. In the same way, how can taxis be expected to stop at approved stops that are not clearly posted? This is the case in many areas.

The myth of self-regulation

“It does not help when we urge the taxi industry to act in a manner consistent with legislation, when in fact State institutions fail the taxi industry by not upholding requirements of the law.”

The Interim Minibus Taxi Act of 1998 and the National Land Transport Act of 2000 were followed by the Public Transport Bill of 2004, which was set to pass into law at the end of 2005. By September last year, Johannesburg was planning to clamp down on taxis and buses that stopped
illegally on the roads, by constructing dedicated roadside parking bays to allow other road users to pass unhindered.

Since I haven’t visited inland since then, I have no way of telling whether anything has changed, but the habit of taxis to stop as and where they prefer, to the detriment of traffic flow, is one behavior pattern they have in common with Durban buses – a breed that happily comes to an abrupt halt in the centre of two lanes, holding up everything behind it..

“The leadership of the taxi industry must address problems [of] operators [who] pay exorbitant amounts…to use and access what are essentially publicly provided facilities, as well as taxi routes.”

Cape Town reeled under accusations that their May 2005 street battles and shootouts between rival minibus-taxi associations were linked to organized crime and in July of the same year, Metrorail reported that sabotage of the city’s rail system could be traced back to the taxi industry. Durban taxi-related inquiries are common and, if they are not in Johannesburg, it’s not for lack of suspicion.

The Cape Town report found corruption rife in the licensing bodies and a mafia-style industry where hit squads are hired by mature (in age only) drivers to murder rivals. A provincial list of the sixty-two ‘most wanted’ was compiled for investigation (with a view to subsequent prosecution) in an attempt to stop “corruption, extortion, money-laundering and murder in the taxi industry” (Cape Argus 7/9/05).

“there is no taxi operator or association that has the authority to prevent other operators from using these facilities.”

And the only people, surprisingly, who were surprised at these findings, were those who commissioned the investigation! Deregulated, the taxi industry became totally lawless. We all know that. As is said: ‘it doesn’t take a rocket scientist…’. Why on earth would self-regulation ever have been suggested

On a lighter note, the local South African National Taxi Drivers’ Association begged Tshwane’s Metro police for amnesty from their outstanding traffic fines, for its members. Either way, it seems clear that taxi drivers seldom understand the game of socially responsible consequences.

Empowerment tool

“…a comprehensive strategy (that) also seeks to empower the taxi industry and set it on a sustainable path. Our strategy will lay foundation.”

In declaring the taxi industry a “lucrative, black-empowerment tool” (IOL, 22/8/05), the Minister suggested that the industry learn lessons from its dark past for taking advantage of economic opportunities in the future. I, for one, believe the power has been on their side for many years (to the detriment of commuters) and I certainly believe that breaking completely away from the past would be a far better strategy.

In four years, we are promised, three out of every four taxis on South African roads, will be brand new vehicles. For me, that Maths does not add up: in four years, rather, 25% of taxis will be older than four years, another 25% will be four years old, another 25%, two years old and the last 25%, one year old. And then, Dear God, the warranties will start expiring and who will fund ongoing maintenance then?

“We are here to further strengthen and empower an industry that is synonymous and has everything in common with the disadvantaged masses of our people.”

Looking ahead

There is little doubt that, despite how little Mr Joe Average likes competing with minibus taxis for road space, they are virtually all that has kept mainstream South Africa mobile for the last fifty years, plus. Dissolution of the industry would have caused ongoing, total havoc, although its very existence now intermittently causes not much less.

The very thing that ails the industry is what ails the entire country: lawlessness; and God bless anyone attempting to turn that around. I suspect that it’s all a bit like marriage from a woman’s perspective: go into it believing you can change him much and divorce is virtually certain.

“In a nutshell, the taxi industry is doing a pretty job for our country and providing an important service to our commuters.”

At this point, public perception is, that the taxi ‘recap’ process is mostly about lousy drivers taking control of bigger vehicles and cause more devastating accidents, thereby killing greater numbers. The taxi industry doubtless believes it’s being pushed into corners it doesn’t choose to inhabit and it will doubtless retaliate again before acknowledging defeat. Retaliate physically, to the detriment of itself, its customers and their safety, on an ongoing basis, for quite some time.

“I had come here to deliver a message of hope and to assure you that our Government and our movement, the ANC, could not work against the interests of the taxi industry.”

Progress expected by January/ February next year, Mr Editor? Your guess, Sir, is as good as mine, but I’d lay a bet that what hasn’t been achieved in the last twelve years, is unlikely to fall into place in three short months. As with land reform, free housing, free medical treatment, free education, free services, etc., you have to be a real optimist to believe things will ‘be sorted’ overnight.

One week ago (10/11/06) DoT released a press statement about a meeting convened to address grievances submitted last month by the National Taxi Alliance after a strike had left thousands without transport to work. It went so well that a second meeting (two weeks later) was scheduled to “continue with the deliberations” and find “a common ground”.

Trust is an important issue here, and an ongoing PR and information campaign, that targeted the entire industry, might have saved a lot of time, feelings and ‘face’, over the years. Associations, operators, drivers, rank officials all have independent interests in the whole and all deserve equal attention. The message of hope, above, delivered by Minister Radebe more than a year ago, must have worna bit thin, by now.

Place your bets, Gentlemen and Ladies. But I’d hazard a guess that the common ground will not be concealed in Minister Radebe’s stocking this Christmas or in his egg by next Easter!