Ralph Mathekga | Time to rethink the taxi industry

Publication source:  News24

The public uproar against the taxi strike is unfair and shows a lack of empathy with the oldest industry to be created by black people in this country.

The taxi industry in South Africa has been around for more than 50 years, and in those years has been the backbone of public transport.

It is a unique transportation system that for years catered for the movement needs of people between generally impoverished black neighbourhoods and places of work. Minibus taxis move the single most number of commuters per day in the country, affecting the transport needs for the majority of the labour force in the country. Without taxis, the broader transportation sector will grind to a halt.

We are dealing here with a multibillion-rand industry that largely continues to exist as an informal sector or even as a “black market”. But whose fault is it that such an important sector continues to exist as an outlier in our economy, nearly impossible to regulate and yet hold such a big stake in our economy and our daily existence.

What enrages people is the decision by taxi organisation the SA National Taxi Council (Santaco) to call a national taxi shutdown to protest the government’s once-off R5 000 offer per taxi as part of the Covid-19 relief package.

Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula insisted the payment is not compensation for loss of income; it is just an effort to assist the industry that has been adversely affected by the national lockdown.

Santaco’s view is that R5 000 is barely two weeks income for a taxi and does not come close to appreciating how the industry has been affected by the loss of revenue due to the lockdown.

Taxi bosses are notorious for threatening shutdowns when they do not get their way. However, a once-off R5 000 payment is far from showing that the government is serious about the taxi industry.

Before the government announced the decision to offer them the once-off payment, various associations were reported to be hiking the price to stay afloat. Indeed, loss of revenue during the lockdown will certainly drive the price up as the taxi industry is trying to fill the gaping revenue hole.

Therefore, any shortfall by the government results in it being passed to impoverished commuters who use taxis as their main means of transport.  

For many drivers on the road, taxi drivers are lawless bunch who drive on whatever side of the road if they see a gap. The truth, however, is that they do not even have a designated lane in our metropolitan cities despite being the backbone of the country’s transport system for decades.

South Africa needs to decide what should be done with the taxi industry. Either it is properly regulated, transformed and modernised to fit in our integrated transport system or it must be totally shut and be replaced with something else.

Currently, South Africa is sitting on the fence when it comes to what to do with the taxi industry.  The government has been pursuing some form of plan to modernise it, albeit at a pace whereby it may end up naturally disappearing as a form of transport in the country.

If the government does not find ways to assist the taxi industry meaningfully during the Covid-19 pandemic, the sector will become a weaker point in the country’s attempt to fight its spread.

A properly regulated and modernised taxi industry will ensure that owners are no longer over-indebted and conflict over routes will certainly decline. The current approach taken by the government will only result in more conflict within the sector as the struggle for survival becomes intense. A dysfunctional taxi industry will cost the economy and society in general dearly.

The Covid-19 pandemic is an opportunity for the government to take the lead in rethinking the taxi industry.