Government remained committed to the taxi recapitalisation project (TRP), and it would not abandon the process, said Deputy Transport Minister Jeremy Cronin on Tuesday.

However, he added that government had entered into discussions with the taxi industry as part of “a review” and a “joint assessment” of what the project had achieved.

Cronin described the TRP as having “a rocky history”.

“It was one of those well-intended policies that was perhaps not thoroughly thought through; it was probably over-ambitious.

“I suspect the process may not have been sufficiently transformative, but more ameliorative.”

The TRP aimed to replace South Africa’s minibus taxi fleet with new vehicles, adhering to stricter safety standards.

These included passing a roll-over test, which determined the impact of a collision on body panels, structural integrity and interior fittings (seat anchorage).

Cronin’s comments came as new Transport Minister, S’bu Ndebele, had announced in his budget speech earlier this month that 27 800 taxis of an estimated national fleet of 90 000 had been scrapped and replaced with new vehicles – ten years after Cabinet had first approved the TRP in 1999.

This meant there officially remained roughly three years to replace the remaining 60 000 minibus taxis in the country.

(Cronin also noted that the 90 000 figure was the official number of legal taxis in South Africa, and that it did not include illegal taxis, which could see the number soar to 300 000 vehicles.)

The original TRP, put forward in 1999 by then Transport Minister Dullah Omar, had already been replaced with a new-look scheme in 2004 – which was rolled out in 2005 – when the programme was replaced with a new, more affordable scheme by Omar’s successor, Jeff Radebe.

In 2004, it was promised that the scheme would take seven years to complete, costing an estimated R7,7-billion, up from the original budget of R4-billion to R6-billion.

Radebe said at the time that the previous programme was neither “affordable to the national fiscus nor profitable to the operators”, which would have subsequently filtered down to commuters by means of rising taxi fares.

The original programme would have forced taxi operators to choose their new vehicles from a shortlist of pre-approved vehicles. The new programme only put forward minimum specifications, applicable to any brand of people carrier.

Radebe also noted later, in 2007, that an “acceleration of the TRP” should ensure that 80% of the taxi fleet would be recapitalised by the 2009/10 financial year.

The programme allowed for a R50 000 scrapping allowance to aid taxi operators to buy new vehicles.

Cronin noted on Tuesday that inflationary pressures had since seen this figure increase to R55 000.

He also said that the time frame of a seven-year schedule was no longer that strict.

“The process will be demand driven, but we’ll push demand.”

Cronin explained that law enforcement agencies were persistently singling out unroadworthy taxis, as an incentive to transform.

Cronin also noted that the TRP had not yet been the subject of “proper review”, and that the current forum between government and the taxi industry would investigate issues such as whether the TRP had increased passenger safety, whether the scrapping allowance was sufficient, and whether taxis should not also receive government subsidies, as was the case with other forms of public transport, such as Metrorail and the large bus industry.

“The real reason for the recapitalisation is not the vehicle, but the operating environment – overloading and speeding – because owners tell drivers they want R600 or X-amount at the end of the day, so the drivers rush around, hammering the vehicles.”

Cronin said the long-term solution was to bring the taxi industry into an integrated, formalised, government-sponsored public transport service, as was the case with the bus rapid transit (BRT) system proposed for Johannesburg, which would then also allow for the industry to be subsidised.

This BRT system would see certain taxi operators abandon their vehicles to form a bus operating company within this public transport system.