'Black taxis' fueled by chaos Unregulated mayhem: Violence plagues South Africa's lucrative 'black taxi' industry, a major source of transportation for the country.

Sun Journal

January 09, 1996|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- The minivans swarm about the streets like bees, constantly beeping, then stopping all movement at the command of hand signals as mysterious to the uninitiated as an insect's navigational dance.

Everyone knows the vans as "black taxis," the main form of transportation for the majority of South Africa's population and, collectively, perhaps the largest black-owned business in South Africa. It also is plagued by nearly daily eruptions of deadly, gangland-style violence.

These are the taxis of swaying springs and squeaky brakes and passengers with sullen stares. The etiquette is complex. Along the roadsides, would-be passengers hold up various combinations of fingers and point them in various directions to indicate a destination -- a sign language unknown to most white South Africans but learned by blacks in childhood.

In the townships and cities, the taxi stands seem places of total chaos, the minivans approaching from every direction, the path of final approach unknown, the vehicles ranging from the decrepit to the new, pulling out, pulling in, always honking. Eventually, vehicles and people line up according to destination.

Beyond that is the unseen organization.

Each route is the "property" of a specific taxi association and can be traveled only by the dues-paying members. Many of these associations are legitimate businesses. But police say others are Mafia-style gangs in which the dues are,in effect, protection fees that pay for gunmen who protect the monopoly by force -- and to muscle into new territories.

There is considerable money at stake: The heads of the various taxi associations are among the wealthiest residents of the townships. Many people, including the drivers, assume that corruption is involved in getting police to turn a blind eye to the violence and to ignore the use of stolen vehicles.

"There are two or three people in Soweto who are responsible for all the violence," insists Bongani Moloi, a taxi driver for a decade. "The police know who they are, but they do nothing."

Associations compete

Violence usually breaks out when one association is accused of encroaching on routes or using a taxi stand claimed by another. In Johannesburg, the violence now involves long-distance taxis, those going to relatively distant cities or outlying villages.

These are particularly lucrative routes just now, during the Southern Hemisphere's summer, when businesses and schools close. Urban black workers depend on taxis for their annual visit to the rural areas that they consider their real homes.

At the Noord Street taxi stand in Johannesburg, people laden with luggage line up beneath signs for towns that are hours, even days, away. Almost every day of the last few weeks someone has driven by and fired shots. Sometimes drivers who are hit; sometimes passengers. About a half-dozen people have been killed.

Mr. Moloi doesn't go long distances, only to the Dobsonville area of Soweto. But it requires him to use the Noord Street stand, and he keeps his eyes open for trouble.

The basic Johannesburg-to-Soweto fare is about 75 cents. One-way, the trip takes from 20 to 45 minutes, depending on traffic, and drivers try to make 10 round trips in their 12-hour day. The 14-seat vans are full in the rush hours and nearly empty at midday.

"My boss expects 300 rand" -- about $85 -- "from me at the end of the day," says Patrick Shange, a driver on the Soweto route who uses that township's immense Baragwanath stand, a virtual city of vehicles, people and traders.

For a six-day work week, drivers are paid $75 to $85 a week by the vehicle's owner. But all transactions are in cash; there are no meters, no receipts. It is assumed that drivers find ways to supplement their salaries -- a passenger whose money stays with the driver, a trip that the driver never reports.

Indeed, like most black business in South Africa, the taxi industry is part of the "informal" economy, one that is without records, taxes or accountability. Hundreds of drivers work the 12-hour days, six-day weeks and are glad their association is protecting their livelihood.

Drivers steal

"You know your drivers steal from you," says Sipho Motha, who used to own four taxis. "You just try to keep it under control. You can tell by the odometer if the taxi has been driven a lot. If they are not giving you any money, you talk to them."

Mr. Motha is a classic taxi success story.

He began his driving career by going to work for an uncle in 1972, when Plymouth Valiants were the standard vehicle, and seven people were a full load.

For that time, the job offered important advantages. In the apartheid era blacks were chased out of white Johannesburg at the end of every working day, but taxi drivers could circumvent the rules. "If you just wanted to go in and look around town at night, you could say you were picking up a fare, and the police wouldn't bother you," says Mr. Motha. "You didn't need a pass."

Like all elements of black life, black-owned taxis were strictly regulated by white authorities, and the necessary licenses were hard to come by. Then, in the late '80s, authorities decided that regulation was bad.

The taxi market became, in effect, a free-for-all. Suddenly there were too many taxis pursuing too few fares, and the fierce competition was perhaps the origin of the violence.

Mr. Motha shifted to driving minivans. He bought his own van, then four of them. Two years ago, he left the business and used his savings to buy a shop in a new Soweto shopping mall.

Many people thought the black government elected in 1994 would try to restore order to the industry, by reimposing government regulation. There have been task forces, meetings and studies -- but no changes.

Taxis seem too potent a political force, and provide too many needed jobs.

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