Lessons from the Cape Town taxi showdown

William Saunderson-Meyer says it is still possible to stand up to bullies in SA, and win


A week of minibus taxi association-inspired chaos and mayhem in Cape Town had the locals on edge and, unusually, drew the involvement of the national government. Five people were killed, buses and vehicles were torched, and the economy was dealt a severe blow.  

The strike was triggered by the municipal authorities trying to enforce the law by, as a final resort, impounding vehicles for violations such as driving without a licence or registration plates, or owing vast sums in unpaid traffic fines. In response, the South African National Taxi Council (Santaco), launched a shutdown which predictably was accompanied by road barricades, stone-throwing and shootings. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Such violent skirmishes between rogue taxi owners and local law enforcement are not unique. They have been endemic countrywide for decades, as a result of powerful taxi syndicates thumbing their noses at licensing laws, traffic regulations and paying taxes.

The Cape Town eruption, however, was different from the norm. Possibly for the first time, a local authority did not back down in the face of orchestrated mob violence.

Also, for the first time, the national government initially supported the violent thugs, who just happen to be part of a powerful African National Congress-aligned lobby. The Transport and Police ministers both blatantly favoured the strikers in their public responses, acting almost as spokespersons for Santaco.

It became a symbolically important confrontation. A municipality had never won such a stand-off and, in turn, the taxi associations were determined, for obvious reasons, to avoid such a precedent. 

The issues are tediously familiar. Trains and buses that compete for custom on lucrative routes are regularly torched. Successive court judgments ordering the Department of Transport and the SA Police Service to develop and implement clear strategies to combat such attacks have been brazenly ignored.

In the five years to the end of 2022, taxi violence — passengers are collateral damage — has resulted in 1,653 deaths in just the three provinces of KwaZulu-Natal, Gauteng and Western Cape. And a decade-old study by the Automobile Association found that taxis were involved in more than double the number of serious crashes than all other passenger vehicles combined.

The sector, which has an estimated annual turnover of R90 billion pays only R5 million a year in taxes. However, the previous Finance Minister Tito Mboweni had to admit that this included PAYE contributions for its employees. “Our analysis indicates that the majority of the taxi industry is declaring a nil return or are having a refund due to them,” Mboweni shamefacedly told Parliament.

A study by the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation points to official corruption and collusion as major factors: “In particular, the ownership of taxis by police and other government personnel directly aids criminality in the industry and exacerbates attempts to resolve the violence.” 

The study, conducted more than 20 years ago, warned: “That taxi violence continues today (2001) is an indication of the efficacy of violence as a way of regulating the market by keeping prices up and competition down; of the tenacity of violence once sparked; and of the failure of the ANC government to crack down on crime and criminal organisations.”

Aside from some in the ANC elite getting direct financial kickbacks from taxi bosses, this is a government which has become very nervous about directly using the resources of the state to quell violence. 

First, it lacks the political will. The mental scars of the “Marikana massacre”, where the SAPS Public Order Unit shot dead 34 miners on 16 August 2012, remain vivid. Especially with President Cyril Ramaphosa. (The SAPS’s actions that day were at least partly in response to exhortations from Ramaphosa, then a director of the mining company involved, to act forcefully against the “dastardly criminals”.)

Second, more scarily, it’s not certain that the state is still capable of quelling a large-scale eruption of violence. Both the police and military are much degraded in capacity and training. Consequently, taxi association militancy can be useful to the government. On occasion, they may act as an informal paramilitary.

The taxi associations were deployed against the Radical Economic Transformation faction’s 2021 KZN and Gauteng riots, as well as to stymie the Economic Freedom Fighters’ March failed national shutdown in March. While there is no evidence that the government ordered their involvement in either of those pro-ANC interventions, it certainly didn’t try to prevent them.

So, while it was distressing it was not surprising that the Ramaphosa administration’s first response to the standoff was to angle for a Santaco victory against the ANC’s despised rivals, the Democratic Alliance government of the Western Cape.

Transport Minister Sindisiwe Chikunga came out strongly against the Cape Town authorities, ordering the immediate release of minibuses “illegally” impounded under municipal regulations, saying that “we” are not afraid of JP Smith, the Mayoral Committee Member for Safety and Security. It has since emerged that the vehicles were impounded under her department’s National Land Transport Act of 2009

Police Minister Bheki Cele, who had secret talks with Santaco outside the formal negotiating process that the city set up, urged Cape Town to do a deal because of the cost of the continued shutdown. He stood silent but visibly angry beside Mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis when the latter told a press conference that to do so would be sending the wrong signal: “You,” he said to Cele, “negotiate with criminals. We won’t.” 

President Cyril Ramaphosa, who was to have spoken at a Khayelitsha Woman’s Day event on Wednesday, cancelled citing “a high security risk” because of the taxi strike. As the Cape Times commented: “It says a lot about the government’s trust in the country’s law enforcement agency, and how useless the country’s police top brass have become.”

The Financial Mail got to the nub of it. It editorialised that the strike, disastrous to the Western Cape economy, was in response to a list of national offences that would be “comically obvious in any country where the law is upheld but [here] is suddenly a declaration of war”.

“It’s a lonely stand taken by the City … [but] the mayor is absolutely right to hold the line, which is something pitifully few now do.”

The ANC’s placatory approach did, however, have support elsewhere. Panicky editorials and industry organisations were urging the city to “not take a hardline but to seek compromise” — all euphemisms for “back down”. 

News24 urged Hill-Lewis to resist “wanting to win” this round. “Court victories are important, and it is essential to affirm the sanctity of the rule of law, but Hill-Lewis knows the Western Cape High Court cannot, and should not, resolve this impasse. 

“He will simply have to find a way to allow Santaco and its members to continue ferrying thousands of Capetonian workers … while he reins in his security strongman JP Smith from making inflammatory statements and being more reasonable in the execution of his duties.

On Thursday, Santaco announced an extension of the strike while it prepares a supposedly “urgent” court application against the City, which would be filed “within 48 hours”. “We apologies (sic) for any incontinence (sic) this might cause to our commuters and the public at large … It's not ideal that our passengers and the public must suffer because of the unrest. But those in power don't listen when you speak to them nicely.”

On Friday, it was all over. What happened is that the government simply withdrew its support of Santaco. The key factor was the killing of a British doctor on his first day on holiday in sunny South Africa. Not only was it headline news in Britain, but the Home Office issued a “high security threat” advisory against travel to South Africa.

Coming as it did, at the height of the international tourism season, the costs of the fallout were too much. 

The first step was a very public humiliation of the bellicose Transport Minister to ensure that lawbreaking taxis were impounded. Behind the scenes, there was pressure on Santaco to accept a face-saving deal from the City: any illegally impounded taxis would be released (the City says there aren’t any) and taxis won’t be impounded for an agreed list of minor offences (they never were).

It’s undoubtedly a major victory for the DA administration in Cape Town and the Western Cape. More importantly, it’s a major victor for law and order. The forces of anarchy and rival have been defeated. 

One can stand up to bullies. South Africans who urge appeasement and retreat should reflect that either of two ingredients is essential to a calamitous breakdown in law and order — a lack of capacity or a lack of will. Cyril Ramaphosa’s government dangerously shows signs of both.

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