Taxi driving is different over here

Andrew Donaldson writes on the somewhat contrasting governance issues afflicting the UK and SA taxi industry


TWO years ago, on the eve of that first cheerless festive season in lockdown, I signed on for a part-time gig with a logistics company doing parcel deliveries. The work was terrible, but the company’s introductory health and safety lecture was at least quite entertaining: it was delivered by a large-bearded Hungarian who bellowed at his audience that drivers were not to do anything “karaazzy stupit” on the job. 

This meant don’t drive without wearing a seatbelt, don’t drive drunk and don’t get caught speeding. The most karaazzy stupit thing a driver could do, though, was to eat while driving.

“You will not belief,” the Hungarian bellowed, “this guy who works for us — not anymore, of course not! — he is eating his lunch while driving! But he is eating soup for the lunch! Just imagine! Soup while driving! Imagine! Soup! Karaazzy! One bump or sudden brake and soup is all over! On the lap! On the shirt! I could not belief. I say, ‘You are eating the soup?’ He say, ‘Yes, the soup!’ But this is karaazzy stupit! I say, ‘How can you eat the soup? When you are driving?’ And he say … he say … ‘With a spoon!’”

I laughed. It seemed the polite thing to do — and, as it turned out, the only laugh I had with that outfit. Two hundred parcels in a ten-hour shift amounted to one delivery every three minutes on average, an impossible undertaking…

The point I wish to make though is that road safety in these parts is a very serious matter, and the UK traffic authorities do come down on traffic offenders like Byron’s Assyrian. There is little mercy for the errant.

Consider: the Metropolitan Police quietly and without notice recently cut one mile per hour from their “speeding tolerance” for London drivers. The result was a staggering 259 per cent increase in motorists being penalised for driving too fast. 

While driving at any speed over the limit is an offence, police chiefs do recognise that motorists should be granted some leeway. In 2019, a formula was devised whereby drivers would escape sanction unless they exceeded the limit by 10 per cent plus two miles per hour. A motorist driving in a 30mph zone could therefore expect to get away with driving at 35mph before being fined.

This is no longer the case — and almost 350 000 drivers have now been told they will be prosecuted for speeding between January and June this year. The figure for the six-month period before the deduction was 97 000 drivers.

This slight reduction of “tolerance” has been devastating for cabbies. According to the Licensed Taxi Drivers’ Association general secretary Steve McNamara, there has been “an absolutely massive increase in taxi drivers receiving three, six, nine and 12 points [on their licences] in a three or four-week period — some of whom have been driving 35 years as a professional driver without a single point on their licence”. 

Twelve or more points on a licence results in an automatic driving ban of six months or longer. As a result, many London cabbies have now lost their livelihoods, according to McNamara.

I mention all this only because South African taxi drivers appear to get away with murder. Literally. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

On Friday, September 30, the Eastern Cape High Court in Makhanda ordered Fikile Mbalula, the small and shouty transport minister, to draft an action plan to halt the attacks on vehicles operated by the long-distance bus company, Intercape.

The court had heard that a taxi “mafia” had been behind the attacks on the company’s vehicles. Taxi drivers wanted Intercape to up their tariffs to the point where commuters had no choice but to ride with the riskier, overloaded competition. The company refused, and as a result pressure was brought to bear on Intercape: at the time of the hearings, there had been more than 150 shootings, stonings and other acts of violence and intimidation directed at bus drivers and their passengers. 

These incidents had all been reported to police in Gauteng and the Eastern and Western Cape, but to no avail. 

In his ruling, Judge John Smith found that Mbalula had failed to coordinate with the police and integrate efforts to provide protection and support to Intercape against these acts of violence. Both Mbalula and Eastern Cape transport MEC Xolile Edmund Nqatha were directed to develop a comprehensive action plan in consultation with SAPS to put an end to these attacks.

They have not done so. Instead, Mbalula has chosen to appeal Smith’s ruling, a decision that has dismayed and angered Intercape. The company this week slammed Mbalula for his continuing failure to address “life-threatening” threats to the long-distance coach industry. 

Why on earth, we may wonder, would a transport minister want to do this? Surely that’s one of the core demands of the job, to ensure the safety of all road users? A bit of a no-brainer, you’d think, when said road users are targeted by assassins and hired thugs. It seems extraordinary that a minister would actively endanger commuters, effectively condemning them to run the gauntlet through the lawless wilds of the Eastern Cape.

These developments come on the eve of the festive season, a time when many South Africans hit the roads for the holidays. There will no doubt be the usual road safety gestures, the annual “show of force” road blocks where big stuffs like Mbalula and high-ranking Metro officers swan about for photo opportunities. Window dressing, you may say, much like the tinsel now choking the shopping malls.

Meanwhile, and further to reports that driving instructors in Mpumalanga were up in arms that “greedy” officials were increasing bribery fees from R1 700 to R2 000 per student in need of a driving licence, it does appear that action is being taken against corruption.

A Mpumalanga traffic officer who accepted a bribe and was subsequently fired has not been successful in challenging his dismissal. According to a news report this week, the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration did not accept the appropriately named Mfanafuthi Gift Hleza’s explanation that he took R200 from a motorist because it had been a hot day and he needed a cooldrink. Hleza is facing corruption charges and is currently out on bail of R1 500.

On a happier note, it is pleasing to see, from behind the wheel of the trucks I now drive for an events production company, signs of festive season normalcy returning to the muddy island. I have been delivering sound equipment and lighting gear to Christmas markets hither and thither, and everywhere there is fevered anticipation of revelry of pre-Covid intensity and mulled wine and bright lights and whole-hearted cheer and what have you. I feel almost human again. 

Stocking stuffer

Journalist Jacques Pauw’s new book, Our Poisoned Land: Living in the Shadows of Zuma’s Keepers (Tafelberg) was published on Friday. It is the sequel to his best-selling The President’s Keepers (Tafelberg, 2017) and promises the reader much of the same in terms of outrage and loathing. As Pauw writes in his prologue:

“I said five years ago that South Africa was at a crossroads. We had to revive law enforcement, imprison the state looters, bring down the crime rate, find employment for our people and fix Eskom and other state-owned companies. It didn’t happen. In fact, the CR-17 Express had hardly arrived at Phala Phala Park or the comrades were at each other’s throats as they scrambled for a spot at the new administration’s feeding trough. Five years on, Phala Phala Park resembles Dlamini-Zumaville and suffers from the same disease that laid Jacob Zuma’s kleptocracy to waste.

“How did it happen? And is there a way out of this mess?”

Who can say? There are 400-odd pages to go before such vexing questions may or may not be answered. Meanwhile, it’s noteworthy that Julius Malema and the EFF have selflessly added their not inconsiderable heft to the publicity campaign for the book, thus ensuring that Our Poisoned Land will be on the Christmas wish list of all thinking folk this year.

On Monday, NB Publishers, the Tafelberg imprint that issued the book, received an urgent letter of demand from attorneys representing Malema and fellow fighters Floyd Shivambu and Mbuyiseni Ndlozi insisting that Our Poisoned Land be removed from bookstores. 

In addition, they demand that “both Mr Jacques Pauw and NB Publishers unconditionally apologise to Mr Julius Malema, Mr Floyd Shivambu, Mr Ndlozi, and all other members of the Economic Freedom Fighters, for the negligent and mala fide publication of untrue, unverified, and defamatory allegations pertaining to those parties, which publications have been unconditionally withdrawn, and will not be republished, either now or in the future”.

This hoo-hah being a response to meaty revelations in the book concerning Juju’s relationship with self-confessed tobacco smuggler Adriano Mazzotti. NB Publishers are of course defending Pauw’s book. “The information in the book was properly sourced and lawfully published,” they have said, “and demands for removal and apologies have been rejected.” 

When it comes to such matters, laws protecting press freedom in South Africa are really helpful in that they tend to favour the truth. Simply put, it’s up to the aggrieved to prove to the courts that they have been unjustly maligned and defamed. This is well-nigh impossible when the defendants in such cases, usually ink-stained hacks in ill-fitting clothes, rock up at proceedings with reams of testimony at their disposal, sworn affidavits, incriminating videos and the like, all of which shore up incriminating accounts of rank behaviour by the high and mighty.

We should be grateful for this. The publication of a book like Our Poisoned Land would, in all likelihood, not see the light of day in the United Kingdom where libel laws are tinkered and cronied to protect the establishment. 

One legal intimidatory tactic frequently deployed against investigative journalists in countries like the UK, the US and Canada is the SLAPP, or Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation. 

These actions are specifically designed to censor and silence critics by burdening them with enormous legal defence costs to the point that they abandon their pursuit of the truth. In a typical SLAPP, plaintiffs don’t even expect to win their case, merely cow their opponents into silence through the threat of mounting legal costs. Whoever has the most money, in other words, come out on top. Hint: usually those who have the most to hide.

Fortunately for South African publishers, the SA Constitutional Court this week declared in a landmark ruling that SLAPPs are, in fact, an abuse of the judicial process. This arises from the defamation case brought against activists opposed to proposed titanium mining on the Wild Coast and their lawyers by the Australian mining company, Mineral Commodities, and its SA subsidiary, Mineral Sands.

Another well-worn ploy to discourage such nosiness is membership of the aristocracy. In a matter of considerable public interest in the UK, the historian Andrew Lownie has spent some £600 000 in a four-year legal battle to gain access to Lord and Lady Mountbatten’s personal diaries.

Lownie, author of a 2019 biography of the Mountbattens, has managed to get some access to the papers, which are archived at Southampton University. However, and acting on the advice of the British government, the university has now refused Lownie access to diaries and correspondence between the Mountbattens covering historical events from the abdication of Edward VIII to the independence of India. 

Such behaviour suggests there may something altogether more prurient at heart here. One hopes that small animals were not harmed in any way.

Military intelligence?

A former Sunday Times colleague, Aspasia Karras, has come in for some stick regarding her chatty profile of Lindiwe Sisulu, the failing tourism minister. Principle objection to the piece, which appeared in the newspaper’s opinion and analysis pages at the weekend, is that it lacks rigour and fails to address Sisulu’s many shortcomings. One reader, for example, said Karras was not fit to tie the shoes of “a real journalist” and described her work as “fawning drivel”.

This is unduly harsh, say the regulars at the Slaughtered Lamb (“Finest Ales & Pies”), especially coming from those who expect work of an intellectual heft in the Sunday Times

Karras is however a real journalist and I learnt a thing or two from her feature. I was not aware, for example, that Sisulu is a fully-fledged general, “a soldier of the highest rank” — a position she claims to have earned during military training in Russia. 

Should one boast of such things? Given recent events in Ukraine, and the nature of the “strategic withdrawals” we have seen in recent days, it does seem that Russian military training has perhaps seen better days.

A lot has happened since the collapse of the Soviet Union, but Sisulu remains heavily under the influence of that old Kool-Aid and she rhapsodises about a world that only ever existed in Stalin-era propaganda. 

“I lived there,” she told Karras, “I studied there, I did my intelligence training there. So when they disintegrated into various states my heart broke because as a bloc they were solid against anything that might have come to the Soviet people, and I envied them because our country has been broken up into provinces and along tribal lines. [The Soviet Union] was a huge land, all of it believing in the same principles and saying they were all one people. So for me it was like losing the best part of the power they had had. When they lost Ukraine and Odessa … I was thinking here comes trouble.”

The Soviet Union was a huge land? This is a bit like saying the British empire was also a big place, one where all the people banged on with one voice about colonialism being a good thing. 

But perhaps we should cut the wiggy General some slack. She is after all a top cabinet all-rounder, having failed as a minister of defence, human settlements, water and sanitation, international relations and cooperation, public service and administration, housing, and intelligence. 

An impressive record. No wonder, then, that in her bid to lead the ANC, she has picked up a heavyweight ally in the disgraced cleric, Allan Boesak (once described as a man of the cloth — cashmere). There may be much high-pitched shrieking in the run-up to the party conference.