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CAPE TOWN — Just how tough it is to regulate, co-opt and police South Africa’s huge taxi industry is illustrated by this attempt by Cape Town’s city fathers to reduce competition over routes. Two UCT academics drill down into causes and attempted solutions in Hout Bay, where one of the shining examples of the metro’s Bus Rapid Transport (BRT) routes runs. The council got two things wrong. They allocated a taxi route to non-local taxi-owners and then embraced as BRT shareholder partners, licensed local taxi owners running on the same bus route. They didn’t count on illegal operators stepping into the vacuum. Result; running gun battles and deaths. In the 80’s I covered a township taxi war between the long-distance taxi drivers’ association and the local one. City Tramways bus drivers were terrorised out of townships. The taxi-war body count outstripped the political unrest one. Driving or owning a taxi, like entering council politics, is a quick way out of poverty. Killing for route domination has become normative – in economic-speak it’s get-on and/or hang in. I know of a Mercedes driver who gesticulated at a wayward taxi driver on the link road between the M5 townships and Constantia. At the next robot the taxi driver got out of his mini-bus, walked up to him and calmly shot him through the head. – Chris Bateman
Cape Town’s taxi violence is rooted in attempts to govern competition
Over the last 30 years South Africa’s taxi industry has grown tremendously. At the moment, 15m South Africans rely on taxis for their daily commutes. Some of these vehicles are minibus taxis that belong to organised associations; others are usually four or seven door sedans like Toyota Avanzas, whose drivers and owners tend not to belong to formal groupings.
Violence is very common on the country’s various taxi routes. In the most recent incident, four members of rival taxi associations were gunned down in Hout Bay, a suburb in Cape Town. The crime is reportedly linked to competition over routes between two rival taxi associations.
The kind of violent competition over routes that led to the deaths in Hout Bay has characterised the taxi industry since its deregulation in 1987. The industry remains one of the most profitable entrepreneurial paths that residents in mostly black townships can access – especially given the historical exclusion of black South Africans from decent jobs and the skills to acquire them.
An alleged Cape Town hitman and taxi driver who was arrested in hospital will appear in court later this month.
— NewsFlash NewsAgency (@NewsFlash_SA) April 9, 2019
The late 1980s and early 1990s saw the rise of taxi “mother bodies” that attempted to monopolise routes by threatening violence. In response, the government tightened regulations on taxis. The key intervention was to issue licences for specific associations on specific routes. Individual taxi owners had to apply to join an association that enjoyed exclusive rights to a route. In effect, the state limited competition to reduce the likelihood of violence and bad driving.
This strategy has reduced but not eliminated violence. This is because new operators emerge all the time, or ambitious bosses try their luck against rivals. But sometimes the state too is to blame – albeit sometimes because of unintended consequences.
As research published in our new book Democracy Disconnected: Participation and Governance in a City of the South shows, the complicated and contradictory nature of local governance can exacerbate as well as contain taxi violence.
Bureaucrats and business models
The implicit business model of taxis is a low profit per fare, but a high volume of fares. The taxi driver first meets daily targets and then earns their own wage. This model not only incentivises drivers to transport large volumes of passengers: it also transfers much of the risk associated with frequent petrol price increases onto the driver first.
This means the taxi industry isn’t just competitive, but that this competition most keenly affects drivers whose livelihoods depend on moving large numbers of people quickly.
Then, when competition over the right to operate on routes heats up, the state tries to formalise taxis through licensing. The intention is to reduce conflict (and bad vehicles and bad driving) by improving livelihood security though guaranteeing business on a route.
Unfortunately, this bureaucratic intervention doesn’t always work as intended. For example, in Hout Bay a major route for the area was allocated to an association whose owners were not from Hout Bay. This marginalised another association, whose owners were from the area.
And another intervention by the City of Cape Town – the introduction of a Bus Rapid Transport (BRT) system that includes formal taxi owners affected by the new bus routes as owners in the new BRT Company – only complicated matters further.
Complicating matters through development
The BRT was informed by the revolutionary public transport system developed in Bogota, Colombia. Cape Town’s version was conceived as a key part of an integrated public transport network to improve upon the existing public transport in the build up to the 2010 Soccer World Cup.
Its introduction has had a profound impact on Hout Bay’s taxi industry. That’s because one of the BRT’s key business features is to buy out taxi owners by incorporating those with licenses into vehicle operating companies that would be contracted by the City of Cape Town to run the buses used for the BRT for 12 years.
The idea was to give taxi owners a vested interest in the BRT and so promote cooperation rather than conflict. By and large this approach appears to have worked in Hout Bay: the route from the area to the CBD is reportedly one of the BRT’s top performers.
But not all taxi owners working the Hout Bay to Cape Town route were included in the new deal. And a number of taxi drivers summarily lost their jobs as their owners bought into the BRT without informing them. As a consequence a group of taxi owners from one association continued to operate illegally in Hout Bay, using an informal taxi rank near the police station for their activities.
So, while the BRT plan was intended to ease tensions with most formal taxi owners in Hout Bay – and to lessen the threat of violence and protest – it also seems to have unintentionally exacerbated them. Some taxi owners and drivers feel squeezed out of the market. So they operate informally and without licences.
Governance is crucial
This all shows that a number of conflicts are playing out over transport in Hout Bay. These are rooted in the contradictory logic’s of contending forms of market, bureaucratic and developmental governance. The drive for business profit sits in tension with bureaucratic attempts to reduce violence and improve road safety. It can also sit in tension with developmental attempts to provide affordable, accessible transport using busses.
Getting this balance between these contending social goods is tough, especially in a context where getting it wrong can cost lives. But if nothing else it shows how important well designed, consistent and thoughtful local governance is to the daily commute (and lives) of all South Africans.