The South African National Taxi Council (Santaco) has made its position clear: the industry is not prepared to accept the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system in its current form. Either the government gives it control of the proposed transport system, or it continues to rule the roads with its taxis. There is no middle ground.

The threats from the taxi industry should not be taken lightly. This is not the first time its survival has been challenged, and since the minibus taxis appeared in 1977, it has successfully stared down opposition at every turn.

The argument has rarely altered: they started the industry, they built up the routes and they will not give them up lightly. And the temperature is as high today as it was every other time they were forced to stand their ground.

Although it is far from ideal that the government can be held hostage by a single industry, and an unregulated one at that, it must be noted that it is already beholden to Fifa, having promised elements of BRT in time for next year’s World Cup.

In an ideal world, the government would go back to the drawing board now and reconsider its plan. But in light of the bind in which it now finds itself, it would appear that the government has nowhere to go. Should it decide to steamroll ahead, it will be forced to test the ire of the taxi industry and is likely to spark massive social unrest, which would threaten the success of the World Cup anyway.

Consequently, and only one month into his tenure, President Jacob Zuma is faced with one of the most challenging legacies of the Thabo Mbeki era.

Was the previous government short-sighted in its approach? Could it not see that transforming the taxis would be the most contentious project of them all?

“That’s why we decided to stay well away from BRT,” says Mike Sutcliffe, Durban’s city manager. “Taxis dominate this city and they need to be a part of any future transport plan, but under BRT the options just seemed disastrous for them.”

Instead, Durban opted for a more integrated system that keeps taxis in the fold and their fleets on the roads.

But Johannesburg and Cape Town decided to move ahead, and there is no doubt that BRT was mapped out with the best intentions. In essence, it is about introducing an improved system not only for existing users, but for the broader public, one that will alleviate traffic congestion and prepare for the crisis that peak oil will eventually present.

Yet what the project has since done is highlight some major faults in the broader system. Not least is the fact that the taxi industry has been relegated to the second economy, yet it has been servicing the largest number of commuters on a daily basis, most of whom reside in the farthest reaches of the still socially segregated country.

The industry has continued to grow despite the odds, to the extent that no one can put an exact figure on the fleet today. Industry chiefs say it is as large as 200 000, give or take a few thousand. The Department of Transport believes it is dealing with about 150 000.

Annual turnover is estimated to be more than R15-billion, according to Santaco, yet no one can, or will, express that figure as a percentage of GDP, as a lot of taxi income purportedly goes undeclared.

Nor will anyone dare put a figure on the criminal world that is propping up the system. From feudal fees to protection money, to the tens of thousands of rands that taxis owners dole out to buy into lucrative routes, they are all guilty of feeding crime, though none will talk openly or factually about it.

Also unknown is the number of people employed in the taxi ranks. The Department of Transport believes it’s a figure that will never be known, as many drivers are undocumented migrants.

And if this is the country’s de facto public transport system, then clearly the government has been caught napping on this one.

However, scenario planner Clem Sunter points out that for decades they have been transporting millions of people. “Where would the country have been without them?” he asks. “And why would they want to get rid of the taxis when they are the best example of service delivery in a country that is crippled by a lack of delivery?”

Though the industry may not be perfect, it is a good example of small and medium-sized enterprises at work, he adds, the kind of business that will provide the economic backbone of this country and continent in years to come.

Independent policy analyst and researcher Ebrahim-Khalil Hassen believes the taxi industry is very far from perfect “and it’s time they began to adapt to the new realities of this country”. Although he recognises the contribution taxis have made to public transport, he says only a mass transport system, such as BRT, will eventually work.

“And the government needs to stand up to the taxis now, even if it means mayhem for four or five days. They have to know that the rest of us want to travel a different road. We’re looking for the smoother ride that they cannot give us in the future.”

While crime and policing analyst Antony Altbeker shares Hassen’s view, he cautions against the social legitimacy of the taxi industry. “It would be like taking on the establishment” if this stand-off were to go to a strike.

“One of the spectacular things about taxi and shebeen owners in the townships is that they are looked upon as self-made people, and that matters. So when you take them on, you are taking on the pillars of the community.”

Altbeker believes that no amount of intelligence or police officers could prevent or contain an all-out demonstration. “We know from past experience that taxi drivers can hold a city to ransom if they want to. And there’s nothing the police could do if the industry decides they want to seriously disrupt the country. These guys can make their points very forcefully. They are very good at that. But there’s a price to be paid.”

Jackie Dugard is a researcher at the Centre for Applied Legal Studies and 10 years ago she wrote extensively about the taxi wars. Though it’s no longer her focus of research, she is not convinced the same kind of warlords exist today. The problem now, she believes, is that we don’t know how hollow or how real the threat of violence that keeps echoing from the industry is.

Some members have threatened to kill for their livelihoods, while more moderate taxi men say they will stand by their guns, but never raise them. However, what’s also untested is the breath of the radical voices that continue to speak out.

Is there a third way? Paul Browning of the Lesiba Mudau transport consulting group believes there has to be. “The mistake government has made is that it has come in with a ‘big bang’ theory, that one day transport will change radically,” he says.

“But the informal taxi operator is not in the business of change. He’s a single operator in the informal sector. That’s what he knows best. He will resist change. He sees it as a threat to his insecure existence. Be sure of that.

“What the government needs to embark on now is a step-by-step approach, an incremental series of changes. And then you can slowly bring them on board.”

However, it is too late for the stepping stones, because what the debacle has also highlighted is that Fifa is in the driving seat, that planning for a basic service such as transport has been pegged to a six-week soccer tournament in 2010, rather than thoughtful and long-term thinking about what’s best for South Africa.