Failing state, fearsome taxis

William Saunderson-Meyer on SANTACO's blithe dismissal of Malema's national shutdown demands


South Africans are doing it for themselves. They have to, since their nominal president and his ministers suffer from a debilitating, potentially fatal — to the public, at least — state of political paralysis.

For weeks, the only response to the likelihood of public violence around Monday’s call for a national shutdown came from the official opposition, individual business leaders, and ordinary citizens vowing not to be intimidated. They stood alone against the threats from the Economic Freedom Fighters.

Our executive president, a man with an almost pathological fear of conflict, was to all intents and purposes invisible. His government ministers, including the normally voluble, attention-seeking Police minister, were silent. 

Despite panicked captains of industry pleading for President Cyril Ramaphosa to speak out and take the lead in response to the EFF’s vows to shut down the economy — accompanied by bloodcurdling scenarios of violence and looting against those not heeding the call — there was not a word. The shutdown, which has as its chief goal Ramaphosa’s resignation, appeared to have struck him dumb and left him quivering somewhere in a bunker under the Union Buildings.

Okay, I exaggerate. The president did surface briefly on one occasion to speak virtually at an international meeting of the China-aligned World Political Parties Summit. There, shoulder to metaphorical shoulder with the likes of North Korea and Venezuela, he heaped praise on the great wisdom and exceptional ethical values of President Xi Jinping’s “non-aligned” foreign policy. 

But nothing from Ramaphosa about the threatened rerun of the July 2021 riots, which cost at least 360 lives and R70 billion in economic damage, as well as two million lost jobs. Not a peep. 

There was not even a “war room” assembled. It is sadly typical of the African National Congress that its favoured go-to for problems as diverse as power outages, customer dissatisfaction with rail services, and covert operations to discredit rival parties, is nowhere in sight when a coordinated response to actual conflict is demanded.

It was left to Fikile Mbalula, a party official who is no longer even a parliamentarian, to utter on Thursday the first words from within the ANC or the government on the matter. The EFF’s militant pronouncements, said Mbalula, opened the door to “anarchy of the highest order”. 

If there was violence, the ANC wanted EFF leaders to be held personally responsible for damage, and deaths, Mbalula said. The ANC secretary-general’s response was not only tardy in coming but did no more than parrot the position taken by the official opposition a week earlier.

The first unambiguous response yet to the EFF’s plans came from the Democratic Alliance, which warned that its Western Cape administration would not tolerate attempts to prevent or terrorise people into not working. The DA also applied for court interdicts to counter the forcible closure of work premises and disruption of road, rail and air traffic, as well as producing model affidavits for those employers affected to use when reporting intimidation to the police.

Others followed soon after with condemnations. ActionSA leader Herman Mashaba described the EFF’s not-so-veiled warnings of violence as “thuggery” and “criminal”. And on Thursday an alliance of 37 issued a statement rejecting the “forced national shutdown”.

Ordinary South Africans, too, have made their feelings clear. Not only has social media been full of messages of individual defiance, but throughout the country, community security groups have separately and quietly been meeting with local and regional security clusters — which include local police commanders — to be prepared for any violence. 

However, perhaps the biggest blow to EFF leader Julius Malema’s promise that there would be “no school, no university, no factory, no bus, no taxi, no trucks, no trains” moving on that day, came from the SA National Taxi Council (Santaco). For the fearsome taxi industry, a key ingredient to any successful mass action, announced that it would not be joining the shutdown.

After a meeting at which the EFF stormtroopers outlined their grand strategy, Santaco simply said, “No!”. The shutdown, said Santaco spokesperson Bafana Magagula, was “an injury to the economy” and its drivers were “fully aware” that the organisation did not back it “at all”. 

“Our drivers have been briefed to be cautious and vigilant… We are more than certain that our drivers can defend themselves should they come under attack by people taking part in the shutdown," he said. 

This was a severe blow to the EFF. The taxi industry is a powerful actor of which both law enforcement and the government are wary. 

During the 2021 riots, it was the intervention of Santaco that turned the tide. Whereas the SA Police Service had stood mutely watching the looting or cowered behind barricaded doors in their stations, when the disruption started hurting Santaco drivers’ income from commuters, they acted.

They deployed with more tactical prowess and unambiguous forcefulness than the hapless cops ever did. The arrival of armed taxi drivers at any site of chaos saw the looters and rioters melt into the veld with alacrity.

On the flip side, anyone who falls foul of the taxi industry is on their own. It acts with utter ruthlessness against ride-hailing companies, bus services and train services. Drivers are murdered, and buses and trains torched with apparent impunity from arrest and prosecution. 

And when the courts have ordered the police and the Department of Transport to protect such services against taxi-organised violence, they judiciary has been simply ignored. SAPD and DoT are both too scared of the taxi sector and far too compromised to act, for networks of patronage and corruption extend deep into both those entities.

It’s a measure of the enfeeblement of the South African state, that it was Santaco that most determines the impunity with which the EFF can terrorise communities.  Not the government, not the police, not the courts. 

Malema was quick, within hours of the Santaco statement, to dial down the belligerence. No longer was it: “Like Sharpeville, we are not scared. Let the state come with its power, we will come with our mass power, they will find us ready.” 

While he reiterated that anyone who wanted “to take away” the EFF's constitutional rights away would “meet their maker”, this was now Malema the Innocent at the pulpit.

The man who for weeks has been predicting a spontaneous “revolution” told a media briefing that “the EFF comes in peace and has not threatened violence”. If there was any, it would be because the DA had hired “agent provocateurs” to discredit the EFF.

On Thursday, emboldened by the taxi drivers, Police Minister Bheki Cele at last found his voice. All citizens and their property would be protected. Roads and ports of entry would be operational — the EFF had warned that OR Tambo airport would be closed — and those trying to prevent others from going to work would “face the full might of the law”. 

Timid Cyril eventually emerged from the Union Buildings late on Thursday to attend a state visit by Tanzanian President Samia Suluhle Hassan. Unable to resist the media pressure any longer, he at last said something. 

“South Africa will not allow anarchy and disorder.  We met with our security cluster yesterday, and they will defend our people from any planned attempts to destabilise the country…”

Your security cluster, Cyril? On past performance history, who gives a stuff about the security cluster? Shuffle back into your bunker and take a nap. As long as the taxi drivers are good to go, we’ll be okay.

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