The toxic mini-bus taxi industry is the nation’s lifeblood

In Gauteng, nearly 60% of households spend 10% of their income on public transport. Minibus taxis account for more peak hour trips (23%) than any other mode of transport in South Africa, where 70% of households do not own a car and 70% of commuters use minibus-taxis daily.

The minbibus taxi industry is also a major contributor to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. “The road sector in South Africa contributes 86% of the transport sector’s total emissions. It is therefore evident that this sub-sector can offer the highest mitigation potential benefits,” the Department of Transport’s Green Transport Strategy (2016-2021) states.

Quoted in the CSIR Gauteng Household Travel Survey (GHTS) survey, Transport Minister Fikile Mamobolo said: “I want to take this opportunity to say to the leadership of the taxi industry that commuters are not satisfied with the taxi industry and this is clearly indicated in the report, as it relates to matters of safety in terms of accidents and the treatment of commuters. It is a matter that needs serious attention.”

It is disconcerting to consider that the unregulated, violent, dangerous and threatening minibus taxi industry is also in many respects our lifeblood as a nation.  Industry, the corporate, education, health and every other sector – and private households- rely on the commuters who use minibus taxis daily to function.

 “Transport minister after transport minister has not tackled this issue (regulation of the industry).  We have had a number of transport ministers – some of them here and gone within a year – and there is no way you can get on top of and grapple with the serious issue that has to happen here.  No minister of transport has had the length of service and the moral courage to look these guys in the eyes and say, we’ve got to deal with this. The problem is implementation and lack of moral courage on the part of government.  Government is the problem here. It is almost an ostrich mentality.  It is a big problem and you have to start somewhere but government is not even starting,” CEO of the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (OUTA), Wayne Duvenage said. 

At the National Taxi Lekgotla in October 2020, Minister Mbalula agreed to offer a subsidy to the Minibus Taxi Industry (as is currently offered to rail and bus transportation) in the new financial year (April) on condition that it was ‘anchored’ by formalisation of the industry and part of an economic plan that would ensure the sustainability of the industry.

The lekgotla was one of many overtures by government to engage in dialogue and inclusively develop plans for the future of the industry. To date they have largely failed. 

In the wake of the lekgotla, as long as the question of subsidy is unresolved, the formalisation of operations can’t take place.  If the Department of Transport is unable to deliver the subsidy to the satisfaction of the industry, it is likely to provoke taxi bosses and grassroots affiliates. But it will also spare the leadership the onerous task of convincing the rank and file to agree to the massive changes necessary to transform and formalise the industry.   

Politicians are understandably reticent to throw down the gauntlet given the instability of the minibus taxi industry, but perhaps the time has come to take a ‘stick and carrot approach’ to foster formalisation

The Lekgotla committed itself to a joint government/industry action plan to oversee implementation of its recommendations. It is understood that a team has been established but there is still no agreement on the subsidy.

The form, nature and amount of the subsidy has implications for the implementation strategy if it is going to be an operational subsidy. Pending the Minister’s announcement, there is no knowing whether action plans have been put on hold pending agreement on the subsidy, or whether plans have been formulated and are ready for implementation

Although government will obviously have to provide both expertise and funding, this will be “of no use unless the leadership fully and unequivocally commits itself, and undertakes to get the message across to the rank and file, right down to the individual operator,” transport analyst Paul Browning said.

But CEO of the uBunye Group, Vuyisile Majola said discussions at the Lekgotla and promises made by the Minister of Transport are “very far from any effective change.  Looking at regulation and formalisation mechanisms, alone, we are still very far from seeing drivers’ employment being formalised.”

One of the upshots of formalisation will be recognised employment – and associated benefits- for a conservatively estimated 600,000 people currently employed by the industry as taxi drivers, rank marshals, etc. 

Formalisation will also obviously benefit the public, currently at the mercy of a turbulent, lawless mode of public transport

The Commission into Taxi Violence in Gauteng found that investigations on as many as 500 unsolved murders associated with the industry are pending.  “The Minibus Taxi-Type business model is so unorthodox and unique to the extent of encouraging and contributing directly to the recurrence of conflict and violence. Perhaps, a fundamental and total transformation of this business model could be the answer to all these questions/concerns,” the Commission said in its report.

The volatility of the minibus taxi industry goes back to 1990 when the outgoing Nationalist government introduced a policy of de-regulation.  Although regulations exist, the informal sector doesn’t know about them or doesn’t really care because of the immediate benefits of responding to local needs. Experts say the only way to enforce the law is if taxi operators form corporate bodies and legislation is adhered to.

“Formalisation is not merely the introduction of companies which meet the requirements of the Companies Act and SARS,” Browning said. “It implies that taxi operations be conducted on formal sector principles, like those of Putco or MyCiti.  These will ensure compliance with all relevant legislation. These stipulations have obvious implications for road safety.

With well over 1036 taxi associations, communicating to the rank and file is complex and time-consuming. For the average operator, there is little understanding of the benefits of registration with SARS and complying with existing legislation.  The additional costs of implementing regulations are also likely to be met with resistance. “There is no way that the man with two or three taxis can deal with limitations on the number of hours that staff can work, UIF, annual leave, sick leave and so forth,” Browning said.

In Gauteng alone, Jack van der Merwe, CEO of the recently established Gauteng Transport Authority said, there are over 100 associations.  The practicalities of engaging them are still being ironed out.  The MEC can’t ask 100 people to come and see him, Van der Merwe said. “There has to be formalisation, where they can form companies that you can sign a contract with.  But there also has to be a streamlined structure, where we can talk to the leadership and the leadership will consist of 10 people or whatever…the leadership has to be sorted out,” Van Der Merwe said.

A typical operator who owns two or three vehicles and employs drivers who give him cash at the end of each day, is unlikely to respond well to handing over his vehicles in exchange for a piece of paper that says he is a shareholder in a company and that somebody else will be handling his/her money. The prospect of somebody coming between the operator and his/her money will not be well received.

“Since 1993, every attempt that I know of to introduce a cashless payment system into the industry has failed,” Browning said.  

Legislation is already in place and it should be used to foster change, Browning asserts. “The powers are there; they have been legislated by parliament in a number of different fields: the National Road Traffic, the National Land Transport Act, the Basic Conditions of Employment Act – these can be used to encourage a change from the informal into the formal sector, which would be inherently and instinctively more orderly than what we have at the moment,” he says.

Law enforcement will require the committed cooperation of law enforcement agencies. As Majola pointed out, the complicit involvement of corrupt officials and police officers brought to light by the Commission into Taxi Violence, will need to be dealt with as part of formalisation. 

An unregulated taxi industry affects us all negatively.  Citizens of conscience should demand action to ensure that laws governing the industry are enforced.  

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4 Responses

  1. Great story, Melody. It’s a tough nut.. yes, there is a lack of government will, but at the same time – how do you solve a problem like minibusses? The industry is completely lawless, and any attempt to regulate it – through taxation, enforcement, etc – will have violent push-back. The status quo has gone on for too long, so now any attempt to bring it in line with any laws whatsoever will have dire consequences. Small attempts at regulation – a sort of softly-softly approach – have failed dismally.

  2. Great piece…in the 1980s the Nationalist decision embedded with Toyota interests on one hand intaxis and Fiats Putco buses on the other. The Nats failed to find a way to create independent bus industries servicing its homelands. I caught the Putco to a school I taught at in Inanda from the market every day at 5.00am in the morning with my workers ticket. The conflicts unfolded as the Wassenaar industry excelled. The industry has changed in vested interest patterns but the Tiger of vested interest has the state clinging to its back as it tries to shape transport policy. A good article. Is the current minister going to grab the Tiger by its tail or end up as a delicious treat to a very diesel thirsty cat.

  3. I doubt that this problem will ever be solved. It is a debacle descending into an ever-deepening criminal morass. Compounding the problem is that this informal industry is vital to the economy. It is a creation of the worst elements of the apartheid era and indirectly supported by the worst elements of a corrupt inept government.

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