Tuesday, March 31, 2009



By Mondli Makhanya
Mar 29, 2009

The government’s limp-wristed ways have bred an industry that operates almost as a parallel state

On Monday I happened to eavesdrop on an animated conversation between workmen on a Johannesburg street. The topic was the following day’s taxi strike in Johannesburg and the threats by the taxi lords to shut down the city.

The men were visibly and audibly angry and frustrated.

“Uyabona, kufanele silande u Mugabe azophatha is’khashana laph’e South Africa. Uzobabhaxabula ababhaxabule abafake endleleni labantu bama taxi. Ngemvakwalokho angabuyel’ Zimbabwe bese o Zuma nabo Lekota balwele ukuba wuPresident, (You see, what needs to happen is that Mugabe must come down here and rule South Africa for a while. Then he can wallop these taximen and set them straight. Thereafter, he can return to Zimbabwe, and Zuma and Lekota can fight it out for the presidency), I overheard one of them say.

I did not linger to hear the rest of the conversation, but I was struck by the force with which the statement was made.

Like most people who have encountered South Africa’s taxi drivers, I identified with their anger. I remembered an incident a few years ago when thousands of taxi drivers were en route to Pretoria to present an anti-taxi recapitalisation memorandum to minister of transport Jeff Radebe.

Somewhere along the Johannesburg-Pretoria highway, they decided to stop for a collective leak. All of them! They lined the road and performed this private act in concert. It was a nauseating sight .

They did it because they could. Nothing was going to happen to them.

This week in Johannesburg it was the same.

The anger of those men in overalls on the streets of Johannesburg was proven right on Tuesday — a day the people of this lovely city will want to forget very quickly.

Thousands of taxi drivers blockaded highways, rampaged through the city centre and visited violence on innocent bystanders.

For them, it was not enough that they had succeeded in bringing the city to a near standstill. They had to add violence. So they smashed car and shop windows and pulled commuters out of buses and beat them up.

Then they made chilling threats of how they would disrupt forth coming sports events, including next year’s Soccer World Cup, if they did not get their way. They vowed to declare war on the state if their objections to the proposed new transport system were not accepted.

“We are mobilising. If they don’t address this, we will bring the entire country to a halt for a week or two,” Joe Mophuting, a spokesman for the United Taxi Association Forum, told The Times.

By sunset, the strike was the only topic on the lips of the people of this beautiful city. What was striking was the universal sense of disgust and helplessness. Disgust, because the taximen had behaved abominably. Helplessness, because it seemed clear that the authorities were overwhelmed and not in control.

Which brings me back to the men in the street, hankering after Mugabe rule. They were not wishing for the pain and suffering that Mugabe has brought upon his people. This was a desperate desire for a firm hand to deal with an industry that is operating outside the laws of the land.

The government’s limp-wristed ways have bred an industry that operates almost as a parallel state. A rogue parallel state at that.

Whereas there is a lot to be said for the way the industry defied apartheid and flourished despite the Nats’ best efforts at stifling it, it has grown into an uncontrollable monster.

It starts with little things like the terrible disrespect for passengers, who cower in fear. The manner in which they disobey bylaws and treat fellow motorists is legendary.

Then there is the way the industry settles its disputes — via the gun rather than mediation, the courts and other normal routes.

Then you have the methods it uses to challenge policies and government programmes. Like this week’s chaos.

Save for a few flashes of determination, the government behaves as though it fears this parallel state.

The question is: how much longer can we afford to let the industry act with impunity?

At some point the government will have to draw a line in the sand and drag the taxi industry screaming and kicking into normal South Africa.

The industry needs to know that there are laws, regulations and programmes that other South Africans disagree with but abide by.

The hospitality industry lobbied and campaigned against the smoking laws. They lost that fight, and today there is almost universal compliance because they know that if they were to violate the law, there would be consequences.

However, the taxi industry does not fear any consequences.

If one were to offer unsolicited advice to the incoming government, it is that one of its priorities should be to rein in the taxi industry.

You can do this only with a hard hand. A good start would be for our security agencies to stop fighting each other and actually do what they are meant to do.