transport tensions

Cape Town taxi war feeds volatile situation

By Nyasha Bhobo

Posted on August 9, 2023 10:47

Protesters clash with Cape Town law enforcement on 8 August amidst an ongoing strike by taxi operators. (Reuters/Esa Alexander)
Protesters clash with Cape Town law enforcement on 8 August amidst an ongoing strike by taxi operators. (Reuters/Esa Alexander)

The city’s attempts to regulate minibus taxis are seen as an insensitive attack on poor Black working-class communities.

In just a week, Cape Town city-owned buses have been bombed, two people have been shot dead, and tens of thousands of low-income workers walked home on Friday as the powerful ‘taxi mafia’ took a stand against the city’s government.

At the heart of the conflict is the City of Cape Town’s attempt to regulate the powerful minibus taxi sector by announcing it would enforce bylaws by seizing unregistered minibuses, unroadworthy vehicles and abandoned minibuses, and cracking down on unlicensed drivers.

The decision triggered a standoff between the SANTACO – the politically powerful South African minibus taxi association – and the police, who have resorted to using live ammunition and stun grenades to quell the unrest.

Political tensions, too, have risen after Sindisiwe Chikunga, South Africa’s transport minister and a senior member of the ANC ruling party, ordered the opposition-led Cape Town government to release 6,000 impounded taxis on 8 August.

“We will not give in to impossible demands,” Cape Town Mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis said yesterday as thousands of workers stayed at home for fear of being caught in the crossfire.

Segregated city

Cape Town is South Africa’s most segregated city by wealth and race. Millions of Black and Coloured residents of Cape Town’s townships depend on cheap minibuses to shuttle to work in wealthier parts of the city.

Attempts to ‘over-police’ minibuses are seen as an insensitive attack on the poor Black working class community.

Governance expert Stephen Chan tells The Africa Report: “As a monitor of an earlier taxi war, I can say that the only thing that works in the short term is negotiation – the very patient kind.”

Cape Town’s apartheid spatial planning history means that any attempt to regulate the minibus taxi industry feeds an already volatile situation of increasing criminality and gangsterism targeting the city’s infrastructure.

Sending in the army or police will only postpone the dispute into the future

Cape Town already has the worlds 8th highest murder rate, and a growing mafia network, which is linked to the taxi network across the city.

“City housing projects have increasingly come under attack from criminals and extortionists,” Luthando Tyhalibongo, spokesperson for the City of Cape Town, says.

Militarising Cape Town?

Prominent South African public administrators like Adam Habib have publicly called on Cape Town to double down on the taxi sector, and even deploy the army.

However, critics fear that militarising the city could be risky and even throttle Cape Town’s lofty ambitions to position itself as South Africa’s investment gateway city.

“Sending in the army or police will only postpone the dispute into the future, and South African security forces are notoriously rough and lacking in sophistication when it comes to civil unrest,” says Chan.

“The taxi operators will simply come back in the future, more embittered.”

The only real long-term solution is to erode the power of the taxi companies by the construction of a mass rapid transit system, particularly from the Salt Flats townships into metropolitan Cape Town.

“Ever since apartheid, the Salt Flats have been marginalised and ignored, so these problems occur again and again. The taxi companies provide transport. The solution is to provide better transportation,” Chan says.

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