Kombi taxis – stepchildren of the SA passenger transport industry

Stepchildren, according to early fiction, had no hope of ever being well treated and that appears to be the fate of our kombi taxis. The taxi industry was unwanted and badly treated in its infancy, struggling for a recognition that was always denied, and decades later their status is no better.

In the early years, the nemesis of the taxi owner was the Road Transportation Board, a body that routinely denied applicants operating permits in order to protect the South African Railways’ trains and busses from competition. The SAR had a permanent legal representative at hearings whose job it was to prevent taxis from being accorded legitimacy.

However, demand from passengers seeking more rapid and convenient transport encouraged enterprising taxi owners to ignore the permit requirements and travel the back roads in the early hours of the morning, out of sight of traffic and regular police, to get travellers to their destinations. They transported job seekers to the cities from the most distant rural areas and workers from the townships to their jobs in the towns and cities of SA. They also transported anti-apartheid activists wishing to avoid being apprehended by the ever-watchful security police. No one knew better than taxi drivers how to keep their passengers safe from persecution under the apartheid era pass laws and security laws.

Are those taxi owners and drivers now recognised as heroes of the struggle? Are they recognised for the service they rendered to the great majority of the country’s people to whom they supplied more convenient transport from the areas, far from their places of work, where they were compelled to live because of the apartheid laws? Is there perhaps a proposal to erect a symbolic statue to honour these brave and enterprising people, who built a great industry, almost entirely black owned, from nothing and with all the odds stacked against them? Sadly, no! In fact, they appear to be facing many of the same difficulties they faced prior to 1994.

What is it about SA’s stepchild industry, the mode of transport for 65% of paying passengers (about 14 million daily) that has denied it recognition and caused it to be endlessly harassed, ignored, instructed, and denied the recognition it has sought? Complaints about some people involved in the industry are legitimate – bad driving, excessive speed, poor vehicle maintenance, and violence between competitors. However, these criticisms are unfairly levelled at all the estimated 200,000 minibus taxis on the road, and 300,000 people who work in the industry.

Our Enterprise Africa! study, Taxing Alternatives: Poverty Alleviation and the South African Taxi/Minibus Industry written by Karol Boudreaux, provides statistics that show minibus taxi fatalities to be slightly higher in 2003 at 2.88 per 100 million person-kilometres than motorcars at 2.45. All SA’s numbers for accidents and fatalities are too high and must be reduced and the taxi violence ended. The causes must be found and eliminated.

In the case of taxis, what are the causes of accidents? Are the problems entirely due to unsafe vehicles and unsafe drivers? Will the Taxi Recapitalisation Programme, which requires replacement of the current vehicles with government-mandated vehicles, improve safety in the longer term, or will the strategy merely push the problem forward a few years without providing a lasting solution? Will compulsory vehicle replacement, fixed routes, and denial of operating licences to many current taxi owners improve conditions for commuters, or merely deny them the convenience and service they now enjoy? These questions are due to be answered in the next few years as government policy unfolds and adapts to changing circumstances and new insights. Outcomes are likely to have more beneficial consequences for commuters if the regulators refrain from treating taxi owners as the stepchildren of SA’s passenger transport industry and start treating them as the core suppliers of transport services to the nation, which they are, and are scheduled to remain for the foreseeable future.

In the early 1980s the Welgemoed Commission tried to wish away the taxi industry. Fortunately, wiser heads prevailed but policy decisions continued to be based on the presumption that minibus taxi passenger transport was a passing phenomenon. Taxi ranks were provided reluctantly and late, no off-road stopping places (laybyes) were provided to allow taxis to pick up passengers without disrupting other traffic, no shelters were provided for passengers, no dedicated lanes were provided to expedite taxi passenger transport and make travel safer for passengers, and no roads with heavy taxi traffic were widened to facilitate peak hour traffic. None of this was done – kombi taxis were not regarded as a permanent component of the SA passenger transport solution. Some time in the future busses or trains would supplant them, so why provide infrastructure for them? Anyway, all the participants, the owners, drivers and passengers were black, so why bother? That appeared to be the attitude of the apartheid government.

Peak operating times for city taxis cover about three hours in the morning and another three hours in the late afternoon. In between, many of them are idle. During those peak hours they have to move most of those estimated 14 million people to where they want to be. Peak hour traffic around major cities is a nightmare for all drivers: imagine what it must be like for taxi drivers!

Are there signs that our democratically elected government is remedying the previous government’s neglect? Has the infrastructure been improved to accommodate taxi passengers, reduce accidents and minimise traffic fatalities? Unfortunately, there are no signs of such activities. All the blame for all the problems is heaped on the unfortunate kombi taxis – the stepchildren of the passenger transport industry. In the interests of taxi commuters and all road users it is time for that to change.

Author: Eustace Davie is a director of the Free Market Foundation and a member of the Enterprise Africa! team that investigated the SA taxi industry for the study Taxing Alternatives: Poverty Alleviation and the South African Taxi/Minibus Industry. This article may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement to the author. The views expressed in the article are the author's and are not necessarily shared by the members of the Free Market Foundation.

FMF Feature Article/ 26 September 2006 - Policy Bulletin 18 August 2009

Help FMF promote the rule of law, personal liberty, and economic freedom become an individual member / donor HERE ... become a corporate member / donor HERE