By Lucy Fleming
As South Africa rolls out new buses in Johannesburg ahead of the 2010 football World Cup, thousands of minibus taxi-drivers in Cape Town want to put the brakes on a similar plan to revamp the coastal city's transport system.
They fear the government's intentions to improve transport for football fans and leave what has been termed a "legacy project" in the cities hosting the tournament will cost them their jobs.
"This soccer World Cup seems like it is coming to just chop our necks off, because it's taking our bread from the table. They'll push us out of a business," says Mandla Mata, chair of the Western Cape National Taxi Alliance (WCNTA). But the City of Cape Town says such worries are unfounded and the World Cup is an opportunity to introduce a bus-based public transport system that is reliable, scheduled and safe, while improving services to some areas. This would be a relief to many commuters who feel their needs and safety are not always central to the taxis.
"They only care about their pockets," one passenger travelling between Khayletsha and Bellville said, pointing out that the window next to him could not open. "You mustn't trust these guys if they lose their temper," he added - and related a story about how a female passenger lost her eye after she was attacked by a driver for not having the fare. Improved public transport may also encourage drivers to leave their cars at home, which would help ease the city's terrible rush-hour traffic jams.
City planners have said Cape Town's Integrated Rapid Transport (IRT) system will be based on the existing minibus and bus industries. "They will be the drivers of the system. In the first phase we want them to form two companies - so we have a competitive element - and they operate the IRT system for the city - the feeder buses and the trunk routes," explains City of Cape Town spokeswoman Kylie Hatton. Minibus owners would be given shares in a company based on their current market share. And if anything, Ms Hatton says, the IRT would mean drivers who work long hours without holiday and sick leave will be better off. "They'll be moving into a system where they will have fixed working hours and it won't be passenger-based system, it'll be a kilometres-travelled system." The financial pressure to make as many trips as possible is seen as one factor in the minibus taxis' poor safety record.
At Bellville taxi rank, about 20km from Cape Town city centre, one driver admitted it would be good to work an eight-hour day instead of the 12 to 16 hours most work.
“ Lack of regulation has allowed the space for a certain lawlessness to creep in - that needs to be dealt with ” Kylie Hatton City of Cape Town spokeswoman
But the general belief amongst the drivers chatting by their buses and eating breakfast after the morning rush hour was that they could not trust any dictum from on high. "We're not interested in IRT - they want to take over our transportation," said one driver, who had been up since 3.00am. "They're taking away what has belonged to us for so many years," another said. This ownership of the industry seems to be at the crux of problem for the City of Cape Town.
The minibus taxi industry was one of the few areas of the economy that black business was allowed to run under apartheid. And taxi operators guard their hard-fought independence and self-regulation with pride. Mr Mata says each route, which can have up to 50 owner-operators each with between six and 10 vehicles, is run by an association. They ensure that drivers, who get about 25% of their bus's takings, only ply one route to avoid the fierce battles over territory that have given the industry such a bad reputation. Strict rules also apply in the ranks so that drivers cannot jump the queue.
Yet 15 years since the end of apartheid, the relationship between the minibus taxis and the government are still fraught. Taxi-owners complain that a government initiative to scrap older vehicles for newer, safer models by subsiding loans did not materialise for many. This so-called recapitalisation scheme and what taxi-drivers see as harassment from the police checking permits and safety has left them even more distrustful of the authorities. "I understand the sensitivities," says Ms Hatton. "But unfortunately it is an industry that has been largely unregulated - that lack of regulation has also allowed the space for a certain lawlessness to creep in as well - and that needs to be dealt with." "Approximately 40% of taxi drivers in the city operate without a permit," she says.
Negotiations are ongoing between the WCNTA and transport officials to tackle such problems, but Mr Mata says they should not see this as a nod from his members to the IRT. He says their main opposition to it stems from the fact that they have not been included at the planning stages. "They say it's going to happen whatever, like it or not," Mr Mata says. "If they can't listen to us then it is not a democracy - it's despotism; it's like the last generation when they decided everything for you." Ms Hatton urges patience and says the IRT will be phased in slowly. After the introduction of rapid bus link between the airport and city centre this year, a pilot project will be rolled out along the poorly serviced west coast. “ You can see that it is not promises that they can fulfil ” WCTA's Mandla Mata Only after this - in 2011 or 2012 - will other Cape Town routes will be affected. "There is no big bang approach - there's no attempt to put people in financial stress," she says, adding that most of the transport industry is on board and it is only a minority who oppose the scheme.
It is difficult to come by numbers, but Mr Mata says his alliance represents about 152 routes - with more than 45,000 drivers - and their support is growing. It has held several strikes this year bringing misery to commuters, especially those living in townships around Cape Town who rely on taxis to get to work. The South African National Taxi Council (Santaco) recently called off a national strike in protest at the similar Johannesburg bus system following warnings from the government. But Mr Mata says in the Western Cape more taxi stayaways are on the cards before the World Cup kicks off. "They are promising a lot of promises but you can see that it is not promises that they can fulfil - they're just blinding us."
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