Ralph Jones is a soft-spoken former banker who wears Prada designer glasses, drives a Mercedes-Benz and talks of “customer care” as he quotes from The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

A more reassuring businessman could hardly be imagined. Yet he and his thuggish followers have emerged as the most dangerous threat to next year’s World Cup, the biggest sporting event on the planet. With their penchant for violence and intimidation, Mr. Jones and his taxi associations are the wild card that could jeopardize Africa’s historic debut on the world sports stage.

The World Cup, the global soccer championship with an audience of billions, this week entered the one-year countdown to its kickoff next June in South Africa. The event is a symbol of Africa’s resurgence and a moment of deep pride for South Africans. It’s their coming-out party in the world’s sporting spotlight, much as the Beijing Olympics were China’s debut last year.

But the risks are high, and the scrutiny is intense.

Just a year ago, there were rumblings that FIFA, the world soccer federation, was preparing a secret “Plan B” with an alternative site for the World Cup because of delays in stadium construction in South Africa. It would have been a humiliating setback for Africa’s richest country.

Now, the omens have improved. Stadium construction is almost completed, ticket sales are booming and security plans are in place, with 30,000 police mobilized for action. The dress rehearsal for the World Cup begins on June 14 when the Confederations Cup international tournament opens in South Africa.

However, nobody has figured out how to solve the Ralph Jones threat.

Mr. Jones, himself a former semi-pro soccer player who admits that the World Cup is “the dream of everybody,” is a leader of a powerful group of 25,000 taxi drivers who have shown a frightening willingness to shut down entire cities in often-violent strikes.

In South Africa, taxis are not a luxury. They are the 15-seat minivans that provide the cheapest transportation for working-class people as they travel to their jobs. For a dollar or less, they carry passengers from the slums of the far-off townships to the centre of Johannesburg or Cape Town.

In Johannesburg, an astonishing 50 per cent of workers commute in privately owned taxis, while only 4 per cent use the public bus system. It’s a relic of the apartheid system, when the white-minority regime never bothered to create any reliable transit for the masses.

But now, with the World Cup approaching, a transit system has become a necessity. Johannesburg is frantically trying to complete a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system, with dedicated lanes for buses, while other cities prepare their own similar systems to transport the estimated three million fans who will attend matches.

In outraged response, the taxi drivers are threatening to disrupt the World Cup preparations. Fearing the possible loss of 100,000 taxi licences, they are vowing to kill any bus system that would cost jobs or squeeze them out of business.

“It seems that the only language that anyone understands is when we go on strike,” Mr. Jones says.

“We are saying no to the BRT. We are restraining our people now, but you can’t control angry people forever. That’s when it becomes dangerous. … People could do anything. They could go to court, they could go on strike, they could do anything to disrupt.”

In their last strike, on March 24, taxi drivers brought chaos to the streets of Johannesburg. Rolling in slow convoys to block the streets and motorways, they caused massive traffic jams, stranded thousands of commuters, assaulted bus drivers and passengers, and sparked violent clashes with police.

In one incident, taxi drivers stopped a bus and pulled about 40 passengers off. Others threw stones at buses, smashed windows and assaulted motorists who tried to push through their blockades. One bus driver was injured by a gunshot.

Many of the taxi drivers were wielding a traditional African weapon – a fearsome club called a knobkerrie.

“I don’t have the power to say no to traditional weapons,” Mr. Jones says. “It’s their culture, it’s always been there. People take out their frustrations by dancing and wielding these knobkerries.”

Just a few days before the South African election in April, the government bowed to the pressure and called a truce. Jacob Zuma, leader of the ruling African National Congress and now the country’s President, held a meeting with the taxi drivers and promised to delay the BRT until his new government had a chance to review the situation.

But time is running out. Johannesburg had hoped to launch a version of the BRT system during the Confederations Cup to give it a test run.

This would be considered a violation of Mr. Zuma’s promise to suspend the new bus system, Mr. Jones says, and it could trigger another strike. “It’s a direct challenge to us, a direct provocation. Obviously we’re going to be dissatisfied. Can you imagine if people decide to disrupt the Confederations Cup? Will people still come to the World Cup?”

Finally, two days ago, Johannesburg abandoned the plan and agreed to postpone the BRT system until August – a big victory for the taxi drivers and a major setback for the transit plan, which needs a test run in an international tournament. The city also agreed to hire 400 cab drivers to transport soccer fans to the Confederations Cup, strengthening the hand of the taxi industry as it fights the BRT.

Even the deputy transport minister, Jeremy Cronin, has said he is “desperately worried” by the squabbles over the BRT system.

In Soweto, the biggest township to be served by the new bus system, construction workers are busily working on the platforms and stations for the BRT. But they admit that they are behind schedule and have already missed a June 1 target deadline.

“We have no idea when it will be finished,” says Mikey Mofokeng, a worker at a new BRT station in Soweto. “There’s plenty of things we still need to do – glass, lighting, sliding doors, the roof.”

Mr. Mofokeng, like many South Africans, says he would feel safer on a bus, instead of a taxi, if he had a choice. He remembers how the taxi drivers intimidated the BRT workers and forced them off the job on March 24 during the latest strike. “They were threatening us, so we knocked off,” he says. “We were scared. We only worked a half-day. Bus drivers are respectful people, but taxi drivers are not. I never see bad things on buses – only on taxis.”

Johannesburg’s taxi drivers are notorious for speeding and racing through red lights. But they work 14 hours a day for only a few hundred dollars a month, and they are under heavy pressure to meet revenue targets, Mr. Jones says. “Make us subsidized, like the BRT buses, so we don’t have to overload our vehicles, we don’t have to speed and dodge traffic.”

Rich Mkhondo, a spokesman for the South African Organizing Committee for the World Cup, says the BRT system is

essential for the soccer championship. He says he is “disturbed” by the threat from the taxi drivers, but is confident that Mr. Jones and his followers will be unable to derail the tournament.

“Strikes will not prevent a football fanatic from getting to the game,” Mr. Mkhondo says. “If people want to go to the stadium, they will find a way. They will hike, they will bike, they will find a way.”

As a backup plan, the government has ordered 1,000 buses for the World Cup, and FIFA has vowed to step in with its own transport plan if the BRT system is not ready.

In his state-of-the-nation speech this week, Mr. Zuma promised that his government would launch a series of meetings with “stakeholders” – including the taxi drivers – to ensure that everyone benefits from the bus system. It’s unclear if this will be enough to satisfy the cab drivers.

Organizers are confident that South Africa has solved all other logistical issues for the World Cup. Ticket sales have soared, with many games already sold out. Four stadiums have been renovated for World Cup matches, and six new stadiums are nearly finished. Five will be completed by the end of October, while the sixth, in Cape Town, will be ready by mid-December despite some earlier delays, Mr. Mkhondo says.

South Africa is actually ahead of the pace achieved by the past two World Cup hosts, Germany and Japan/Korea, he says. “We are six months ahead of where Germany was at this time, and almost nine months ahead of where Japan/Korea was at this point. We’re very pleased with how it’s going.”

Some have questioned whether South Africa will have enough hotel rooms to accommodate the 500,000 foreign visitors who will attend the World Cup. But enough rooms will be available, Mr. Mkhondo insists – even though some of the lodging will be inside the famed Kruger Park wildlife reserve, where lions and elephants roam, just a 20-minute drive from one of the stadiums being used for the tournament.

PUBLICATION: The Globe and Mail
AUTHOR: Geoffrey York
DATED: 2nd June 2009