Minibus taxis hurtle toward end of road

Buses: South Africa plans modern system to replace sometimes dangerous private operations that carry thousands of commuters.

April 20, 2000|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JOHANNESBURG -- They dart down highways and side streets with balding tires, squeaky brakes and no seat belts. They are the targets of gun warfare, robberies and hijackings. They are blamed for more than 1,000 traffic deaths each year. Passengers who complain about the ride may be struck by the driver -- or shot.

South Africa's minibus taxi industry -- once celebrated as a black entrepreneurship success story -- has deteriorated into a Wild West-style transport system, characterized by turf wars, deadly accidents and scared passengers.

Calling the taxis "mobile coffins," South African President Thabo Mbeki promised this year to overhaul the industry on which more than 3 million people depend for transportation each day.

The ambitious $450 million plan calls for the nation's 126,000 minibus taxis to be replaced by about 85,000 high-tech, diesel buses, offering passengers safety and more government control.

But many taxi drivers are protesting the change, saying more than 40,000 of them will lose their jobs because fewer people will be needed to operate the larger 18- to 35-seat buses. In a country with more than 30 percent unemployment, they fear there will be few places to turn for work.

"If they introduce buses, it will be the end of us," says Pchiwamusa Mchunu, 29, of Soweto who has driven a taxi for eight years.

Like many taxi drivers, he complains that the government's concerns about the dangers of minibus taxis are overblown.

"It's not fair to say it's just taxis. There are accidents in all transport systems. They can't just blame the taxis," he says as he pilots his 15-seat minibus to Leratong, a gold-mining community about 12 miles outside Soweto.

Mchunu's windshield is riddled with cracks. The speedometer is broken. The inside of his taxi stinks of exhaust fumes. Although taxis are limited to 15 passengers, 17 are pressed inside. He pushes the accelerator to the floor, steering with one hand and making change for fares with the other. He swears he has never had an accident.

Passengers -- most of whom have no other means of transportation -- say they have grown to fear their daily commutes. Geoffrey Tulani, 33, recalls riding one day in a taxi that hit a tree, injuring several passengers. "The driver was going a little too fast," he says dryly.

An elderly woman says she is often refused rides because, the drivers said, she was too fat and would prevent them from seating extra passengers. Handicapped commuters are often passed by altogether.

Others relate horror stories of taxis with jammed doors and windows, fumes that made them ill, and drivers who refused to hear their complaints. Intimidated into silence, most passengers would tell their stories only when the drivers were out of earshot. Those who demand better treatment often pay a heavy price.

"They will hit them. They will shoot the passengers," says Joyce Morgan, after getting out of a taxi in Soweto. "We will be very happy for the buses."

To the outsider, the taxi system appears a portrait of disorder. No signs indicate routes or fares. Commuters stand along the roadsides, using complicated hand motions to signal destinations.

The "black taxis" -- as they are often called -- grew out of the geographic and racial separation of apartheid, which forced black workers to commute from distant townships such as Soweto to their jobs in the cities. What started with entrepreneurs in sedans ferrying passengers short distances, developed into a vast, unregulated transportation network.

Passengers pay about 50 cents to travel eight to 10 miles, making taxis the least expensive and most common form of public transportation and a multibillion-dollar business. But as more and more small operators flooded the market, too many taxis were pursuing too few passengers.

Feeling the financial squeeze, taxi owners began patching up aging vehicles instead of buying new ones. The average taxi is 10 years old, government officials say. A cut-throat culture also evolved in which operators were willing to steal and kill to retain their passengers and routes. Passengers often got caught in the crossfire.

This month, a taxi driving on a Johannesburg highway blew out a tire and rolled over, setting off a chain of accidents in which one person died and 30 people were injured. In the country's latest chapter of taxi wars, gunmen ambushed a minibus taxi in KwaZulu Natal province last week, killing the driver and six passengers.

"It has become the survival of the fittest and has led to a lot of violence," says Lawrence Venkile, who is managing the taxi overhaul program for the National Department of Transportation. `The safety problem is quite critical."

For taxi drivers, the temptation to speed and overload is great. Drivers make money only after paying the taxi owners 300 rand a day -- about $50 -- for use of the taxi. More passengers and more trips equal a bigger paycheck at week's end. Still, after working 12-hour days, most drivers take home only about $50 or $60 a week.

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