Cape Town’s mayor urges devolution of rail, unionising taxi drivers or risk repeat of violence and chaos

The star of Cape Town’s young executive mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis continues to rise – with his leadership abilities seen to good effect during the adept handling of the city’s potentially debilitating taxi crisis earlier this month. Like the city’s water crisis between 2015 and 2018, lessons appear to have been learnt from the challenge. Hill-Lewis reckons these include the need for Pretoria to devolve decision-making power on rail services; and find ways to address the working conditions under which taxi drivers operate – an arrangement which incentivises them to break the law. In this interview, the 36-year-old mayor also provides an update on the city’s progress towards fulfilling his campaign promise of ending loadshedding. He celebrates the role of an innovative power supply agreement to secure for Cape Town the first AWS Skills Centre outside of the USA, launched today. It brings Amazon’s seven-year investment commitment of a further R40bn on top of the R16bn already injected by the multinational. – Alec Hogg

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Relevant timestamps from the interview

  • 00:05 – Introductions
  • 01:29 – Geordin Hill-Lewis on the recent taxi strike and whether it’s all over
  • 04:08 – The risk involved
  • 05:06 – On how they got the messaging consistent during the strikes
  • 06:13 – How are the negotiations going
  • 09:42 – On the water crisis and recent developments
  • 12:19 – On the letter written to the president about devolution of rail power
  • 13:22 – On the progress towards ending loadshedding
  • 15:17 – Will Eskom have big challenges in the 3 to 5 year view
  • 18:28 – On Amazon Web services is having its first non-U.S. point of presence in Cape Town
  • 21:36 – Conclusions

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Edited transcript of the interview with Cape Town’s executive mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis

Alec Hogg: Geordin Hill-Lewis has rapidly gained national attention. Those in Cape Town know him well since elected the city’s mayor in November 2021. He’s made some bold decisions, particularly regarding the taxi issues, which we’ll touch on shortly. He’s been highly visible in the South African media, representing a step in the right direction for our young democracy. Jordan, is the taxi chaos and fracas we witnessed across the country, especially in Cape Town, finally over?

Geordin Hill-Lewis: Indeed, the chaos and violence are over, and so is the strike, Alec. It’s good to be with you. However, the disagreement is far from over. The negotiation has shifted to this chamber called the taxi task team, a creature we’ve created to manage this extended negotiation. It had already undertaken several months of constructive work before Santaco withdrew from it on the 2nd of August, the day before their unannounced and unwarned strike.

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Alec Hogg: Only two years ago, in July 2021, the taxi industry was viewed as heroes for stepping in when the SAPS in KZN seemed to disappear. Now, we see another side to it. This is undoubtedly a complex issue. When entering those discussions and considering your approach, what’s your fundamental stance?

Geordin Hill-Lewis: I have a fundamental aversion to bullying and trying to force one’s way into a negotiation or intimidating others through threats of violence. This holds true whether dealing with construction mafia on city sites, rogue taxi bosses, or property developers who try to ignore the law. I don’t negotiate on such terms; it sets a dangerous precedent and incentivises further attempts at extortion. As government officials, we must adhere to a principle of governance by the rule of law, where conduct like this is universally condemned. The country I want to live in operates on this basis, and if that’s our goal, we must act accordingly.

Alec Hogg: An interesting departure from the way things have been handled over the last three decades. I assume there was a degree of risk involved?

Geordin Hill-Lewis: Yes, I suppose so. But to be completely honest, there wasn’t an immediate assessment of risk on my part; it was very instinctive. I have a consistent pattern in my life of standing up to intimidation or bullying. So, while there might have been some risk in hindsight, it was likely worth it.

Alec Hogg: What about the consistency in messaging at certain times? There seemed to be confusion between you, the MEC for transport, and the city manager, such as the issue about paying 6,000 to have a taxi impounded. How do you all maintain a consistent message?

Geordin Hill-Lewis: That’s a pertinent question. In the heat of the moment, conflicting information arises, especially in this case with many technical source documents like the National Land Transport Act, National Road Traffic Act, and taxi operating licenses. So a large portion of the time was devoted to understanding the information and ensuring that we were on the same page, through daily discussions in person and on the phone.

Alec Hogg: Where are we now in the entire process?

Geordin Hill-Lewis: Santaco asked for a 14-day negotiation period, during which we would agree on a list of major and minor offences, with major offences remaining impoundable and minor offences being finable. Four days in, Santaco hasn’t attended a meeting, opting out due to impoundments over the weekend. We’ve used the time with the Western Cape government to start drawing up our proposal, focusing on the safety of road users for major offences, and perhaps treating minor things like a loose license plate as a finable offence.

Alec Hogg: Since they haven’t attended any meetings, is the issue unresolved?

Geordin Hill-Lewis: It’s not over. Santaco wanted the impoundments to stop, but we cannot suspend the law. The law supports impoundments, and we strictly enforce it due to our concern for road safety. The matter can only be resolved by the courts, and I’m glad that they’ve taken that step. We are confident that the law is on our side.

Alec Hogg: Moving beyond the turbulence, has the crisis spurred any new ideas for Cape Town’s transport security?

Geordin Hill-Lewis: Yes, it has refocused attention on the urgent need for devolution of rail powers, as the lack of viable train alternatives gives the taxi industry much leverage. There’s also insight into the working conditions of taxi drivers, who are incentivised to break the law as they are not protected by labour legislation and must meet a trip quota to earn money. It’s ironic that Cosatu got involved when taxi drivers aren’t protected by labour laws. These learnings could make a real difference, and there are many others we’ll continue to explore.

Alec Hogg: What about the devolution of rail power? You’ve written to the President, but what’s the response?

Geordin Hill-Lewis: So far, there has been no response except for a polite acknowledgment. This taxi strike has highlighted why rail devolution is urgently needed, and we do need a response now. It’s been 16 months since the National Cabinet made a decision on this, but there has been little meaningful interaction with the National Department of Transport or the presidency since then.

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Alec Hogg: Let’s move on to happier areas. You came to the mayor’s office talking about ending load shedding. How has the progress been given that load shedding is now uppermost in everyone’s minds?

Geordin Hill-Lewis: The progress has been very good. I’m quietly bubbling with excitement on this because we are nearly through our procurement phase. Our last procurement ends in November, then we go to the contracting phase. Some of the earlier projects are being constructed, and then you’ll start to see new power trickle onto the city’s grid. As that trickle turns into a stream and then a flow, we can move up the levels of load shedding protection. I get frustrated by all the processes you have to follow. You must be very careful with the contracts, as they have major financial implications for the city, but it’s all happening behind the scenes, and we are making steady and good progress.

Alec Hogg: Is there any good news coming out of load shedding? We had Jan Oberholzer, Eskom’s former chief operating officer, at our recent BizNews conference. And he said, yes, there is some good news, but you better keep preparing. Is that your thought?

Geordin Hill-Lewis: Do you mean for the immediate future or the lessons we can take from load shedding or the changes it will force?

Alec Hogg: I think both. With the Kusile units coming back on, and hopefully Koeberg, though there was a setback, and a Medupi unit, without getting into individual details, it looks like there’s some progress. But if you take a three to five-year view, Eskom will still face big challenges, presumably.

Geordin Hill-Lewis: There is some progress, but I don’t believe the statement that there would be no load shedding next year. That’s not credible. But I think that in three to five years, the outlook is positive, not thanks to Eskom, but despite it. There’s much private investment in power generation happening, and although it’s a long process to get connected to the grid, you’ll have much less reliance on Eskom. In 10 years’ time, Eskom will just be one player in South Africa’s energy market, and it may not even be the dominant player anymore. That’s very exciting. Even at a city level, I see energy being democratised through the mass uptake of solar generation on rooftops. South Africa is now one of the biggest markets for solar panel and battery installation. Load shedding has killed the Eskom monopoly, and we will have a more competitive and efficient energy market in the future.

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Alec Hogg: Just over two years ago, the rules changed, and I remember you saying you’d kick the door open if given a crack. You’ve done that. And with the big news today for Cape Town with Amazon Web Services establishing its first AWS Skills Centre outside the US – how did you swing that?

Geordin Hill-Lewis: Oh, I don’t want to take credit for that. A team has been working with Amazon for years. They have been interested in building an African presence, and they’ve been actively pursued by various players in the city and the Western Cape Provincial Government. It’s wonderful to see it come off. What’s more important than that particular investment is the signal it sends to the whole world. It’s a confidence booster for our city and our country.

Alec Hogg: When Amazon talked about having another point of presence, many American cities were bidding for it. The numbers are mind-blowing, with tens of billions of rands of investment from Amazon. Are you confident that you’ll have enough electricity to keep it going?

Geordin Hill-Lewis: Yes, my only concern in this whole story has been energy. Amazon needs to be mainly renewable energy powered, so they are part of our wheeling pilot study. They could invest in renewable energy elsewhere and power their facility here, paying us a small fee for that wheeling. Without this wheeling pilot in Cape Town, it would have been a much harder investment case.

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