19 March 2014

South Africa: Misunderstood and Villainised - the Minibus Taxi Industry's Real Issues With Myciti

For many Capetonians, minibus taxis are synonymous with survival. Without the taxi fleet, which evolved to fill system-wide gaps in public transport planning and service delivery, many would be stranded. Yet the industry is viewed with contempt by many: a stain on the city, or a problem out of control.

This is perhaps why many have been so quick and unquestioning in their support of MyCiTi, and why exaggerated coverage of the taxi-industry's opposition to MyCiTi has only seen this viewpoint harden.

When it comes to MyCiTi, therefore, it is inherently difficult for industry members to articulate their arguments in that they have already been written off as wrong.

As history might suggest, simply writing off their issues could lead to regrettable clashes, and any further damage might render the City and taxi-industry relationship irreversible. Indeed, the balance is finely poised, and it is vital to see the situation from the side of the taxis; to understand why their MyCiTi experience has led them to want to reject it.

The city's legacy of structural apartheid means that thousands of working-class residents must commute long distances every day.The industry exploded towards the conclusion of the Apartheid era.

In 1987, attempts to solve ongoing public transport issues of under-supply led to the full deregulation of privately owned transport services. By doing this, Government effectively "outsourced" existing gaps in the public transport network to the private sector.

It was an unprecedented opportunity for black entrepreneurs, who had been structurally excluded from the mainstream economy for decades. In the four years following deregulation, the number of taxi operating licenses in circulation rose tenfold, from a mere 4,000 in 1987 to 40,000 in 1991.

As one might expect, any industry with such rapid growth would experience problems. This was exacerbated by the lack of formal regulatory bodies. Like many other unregulated economies, the informal taxi-industry lent itself to domination by tough men, who used force to obtain and hang onto power.

The industry thus dissolved into a series of violent turf wars throughout the 1990's and early 2000's. Independent taxi associations formed in efforts to legitimise individual routes, and protection was enlisted from street gangs.

Such was the tumultuous and volatile nature of this self-governed industry that it earned itself a reputation of disorder, intolerance and menace. Undeniably, this reputation remains today.

Taxi drivers and operators find themselves in an awkward situation. As it happened, the reprehensible actions of an industry minority have seen the majority labelled in type. Whilst the actions of these few might be inexcusable in the extreme, it is the honest, hardworking majority that tend to suffer from it most.

In 2013, a series of owner and driver interviews conducted by UCT's Centre for Transport Studies sought to unpack why and how this was the case. When asked what kept the industry going, one driver's response was glowingly simple: "It is a family culture. Drivers, owners, passengers - they all treat each other like family. The relationships are naturally strong as they are exposed to each other's struggles and they can understand each other on a personal level."

Another driver provided a personal example. "Once, my sister needed money for university. When I asked the owner to help out with raising the money, he lent it to me, and we organised to put a fair repayment plan in place."

This also translates to the treatment of passengers. "Even if the passenger has no money, he can organise a loan and will repay it later. The passenger can chat about the reason with the driver and he will try to take care of you."

Asked to build on this, another driver continued: "Some passengers, for example, are disabled. Others have heavy baggage. So drivers will arrange to drop the passenger at their house. When it rains, some taxis will arrange to pick up passengers from their house for free."

Clearly, the industry operates in something of a niche. What is seen as threatening and destructive by some, is seen as flexible, familiar and accommodating by others. Despite the publicised contention between bus and taxi operators, the industry has found a functional equilibrium. Whilst it might be an unstable equilibrium - an equilibrium labelled "handle with care" - it is an equilibrium that is absolutely indispensable to the real, everyday lives of hundreds of thousands of people.

It is therefore curious as to why the City of Cape Town's MyCiTi bus project is leaving the industry so sceptical. The MyCiTi project - one of equal pro's and con's - forms the crux of an umbrella plan to restructure the city's public transport network. As an exciting, unprecedented and by all means long overdue investment into the sector, accompanied by hefty promises of opportunity and betterment for those involved, it seems strange that the taxi industry appears so opposed to it.

Industry members tried to explain their position of unease. "The drivers are worried. They have heard about their "brothers" who have been left in the cold from the Kidrogen deal [a vehicle operating company formed to operate routes on Phase 1A]. They feel like the only things they know are from the media. When the City has presentations, people are confused; they don't understand. They want a full explanation, as all they hear at the moment is based in rumour."

"It is seen as a threat, and no one has explained it to them. They feel like MyCiTi can only disadvantage taxis. If it were to come in and empower the sector, it might be different. But the fear of the unknown is prevailing, and no one knows just what the impact will be. As a result of not knowing, they end up rejecting the idea entirely. They only hear the negatives, and so simply do not want it."

One owner highlighted an unfortunate incident involving a colleague and friend: "They reject it further because an owner committed suicide even after he was compensated. This creates fear. After the suicide, two drivers were left stranded and unemployed. The drivers all meet each other and are all worried."

Others reflected their personal fears: "There is a worrying skills problem. I am worried: I have a Code 8 driver's license [MyCiTi requires Grade 12 qualification and a Code 14 license], no formal education, and thus no ability to be upgraded. I am scared I will end up sweeping streets, and I have a big family."

Another said: "MyCiTi vehicles take 100 people, and have only 1 driver. 10 Quantums with gaatjies serve the same (volume of) people. What will happen to those extra 19 jobs?"

"Drivers feel that they might be too old now to learn new things. Unemployment is already so high - where will they go? ... Not only direct industry is affected. Informal hawkers are also excluded. Ladies provide food at the ranks, and are already being arrested in Claremont and fined. Will MyCiTi allow them to continue? If not, many more than just the drivers will suffer."

Quite why the City has so far failed to effectively communicate the MyCiTi rollout is unclear, but what is more than certain is that the failure to do so is driving an endemic and rumour-fuelled distrust.

As one driver put it: "Being left in the dark is a huge issue. The lack of information creates a nagging fear. The morale at the rank is low and it is affecting performance. The City needs to understand the social standing of the drivers and how important they are to their communities and families. They are paying for their children's school fees. What will happen to my daughter?"

All quotes were provided through a translator. Effort has been made to maintain the anonymity of the individuals interviewed,

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