New buses rattle South African taxi drivers

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — After thriving despite the oppression of the apartheid regime and surviving years of violent infighting, South Africa’s taxi industry is ready to take on its latest foe: a bright red and shiny bus system.

“Taxis” in South Africa mostly refer to white minibuses that operate on hundreds of routes linking the sprawling townships to downtown areas. Because of the dismal state of the country’s public transportation, the taxis provide an invaluable service to millions of commuters each day.

The taxi service is not above reproach, however. Passengers routinely complain about the rudeness of taxi drivers. The taxi drivers also have a reputation for aggressive driving that takes traffic laws as mere suggestions. The wild driving of some taxis drives other road users to exasperation and leads to frequent and tragic crashes.

Enter the Rea Vaya Bus Rapid Transit System (BRT), a network of futuristic stations and buses designed to offer a cleaner and safer alternative to the local taxis. The main route connects Soweto with downtown Johannesburg with additional routes to be added in coming months and similar operations to be rolled out in other cities, including Cape Town and Pretoria. These efforts and the construction of Gautrain — a new rail service being built to link the Johannesburg and Pretoria city centers — are also set to play a critical role in transporting soccer fans during next year’s World Cup.

Mami Mazibuko is ready to switch allegiances. The 33-year-old spends about an hour in taxis to and from work every day, but she said the rudeness of taxi drivers is pushing her to explore other options.

“I don’t like using the taxis, that’s why I’m trying the buses,” she said minutes before taking her first trip on a BRT bus in downtown Johannesburg. “The treatment they’re giving us, these (taxi) drivers, it’s not nice at all,” said Mazibuko.

Attracted by the new buses’ cleanliness and comfort, Mazibuko would seem a prime target for the BRT’s marketers, but her situation also highlights the bus system’s limitations: The new buses have yet to find their way to her side of town, so for the foreseeable future she is stuck with minibus taxis.

The taxi industry developed in black townships several decades ago as an alternative to the subsidized buses provided by the apartheid government. Black workers were reluctant to ride in what they considered to be yet another symbol of an oppressive regime, and black-owned taxis became the preferred mode of transportation.

Today, the taxis transport about 15 million passengers daily, said Tabisho Molelekwa, a spokesman for the South African National Taxi Council. Molelekwa said taxis offer convenience and frequency but acknowledged customer service needs improvement.

“We are aware that our drivers have not treated our passengers with dignity and respect,” Molelekwa said. “We are also aware that there is a continuing perception from the drivers that they make our passengers a favor by ferrying them.”

Bad manners are not the only problem affecting the industry. For years, rival taxi gangs vying for control over valuable routes battled it out on the streets, leaving scores of victims behind. Although the violence seems to have subsided of late, it has not disappeared. Taxi occupants fired on a bus in the first days of operation of the BRT, injuring a passenger and a policeman. Earlier this month, the deputy president of SANTACO was gunned down near his home. The motive for the murder remains unclear.

“Let us use this incident to permanently banish violence from our society,” said Transport Minister Sibusiso Ndebele at the SANTACO official’s funeral. “Our mission is to broaden the role of the taxi industry in our transport sector and in our economy.”

Vaughan Mostert, a lecturer on transportation issues at the University of Johannesburg, said South Africa’s taxi industry is “emotionally loaded.” Mostert said because both the ruling party and taxis played major roles in the struggle against apartheid, the government is reluctant to crack down on the taxi industry.

“Now we have the problem that the informal taxi industry has grown to such an extent that it has become a law onto itself,” Mostert said.

Mostert argues that the taxi has a future along with rail and buses but that it needs to be formalized with driver shifts, contracts and a uniform ticketing system. Only if all modes of transportation come under the authority of one agency will a consistent strategy be implemented, Mostert said, but political will is lacking.

SANTACO’s Molelekwa agrees on the failings of the government. The taxi industry has been promised many things over the years, including subsidies, but nothing has materialized. Now that the BRT is here, taxi operators don’t want to miss the opportunity to cash in. Molelekwa said the taxi industry, which once forced the postponement of the BRT’s launch through major strikes, wants to be involved in every aspect of the new bus system’s revenue chain, from ticketing to cleaning and advertising.

Regardless of the outcome of arduous negotiations with the government, Molelekwa said he is not afraid of BRT’s competition.

“It will take years, if not forever, for people to decide not to use taxis,” he said. “We’re not worried at all.”