Half of all minibus taxi commuters have witnessed some illegal act by their drivers, but are too scared to complain because of the violent nature of many taxi drivers. And this feeling of powerlessness is contributing to post-traumatic stress (PTSD) among some commuters.
A report released by the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) raised findings which were “deeply concerning” regarding the power dynamics between commuters and operators and their perceptions on safety and crime.
It found that 50% of all national respondents had witnessed or experienced some taxi-related illegality and 49% of all national respondents believed taxi drivers were “very or somewhat aggressive”.
According to economist Philippe Burger, South Africa’s working poor spends an average of a third of their income commuting to and from work, primarily through private taxi operators.
Despite contributing the most income to the industry, this demographic has the least power over the conditions under which they travel, said Mqapheli Bonono, vice-president of civil rights movement Abahlali Basemjondolo.
“It is an industry that has an air of fear around them, because it is dominated by men. Once something is dominated by men there is potential for violence because they know they have the power and claim they decide whether we go to work or not.”
Bonono said many of the communities were poorly serviced and marginalised, but despite this, received little support from the “powerful” taxi owners and operators when the time came for civil action, such as protests. Another contributing factor to the fear-driven relationship between operators and communities was the phenomenon of taxi violence among those in the industry.
But the South African National Taxi Council (Santaco) says it is trying to mend the ostensibly broken relationship with its clientele: poor, working-class South Africans.
Santaco national spokesperson Thabisho Molelekwa said the council was working towards correcting these relationships and improving driver-commuter relationships through their campaign, Hlokomela. He said the body was disappointed that, despite their efforts to deal with the challenges in their services, there were still important flaws posed by the poll that needed to be dealt with.
“We would like to see how we can improve on our services through our campaigns. We accept our responsibility in correcting the issues but we also see this poll as an indication of our frustrations with the government for not assisting us where we need them – especially in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal where we have issues regarding licensing.”
Bonono said while he agreed there was a strained relationship between government and the industry, some of the problems faced by it are self-inflicted.
“I doubt they would be willing to be taxed as businesses so that they have accountability to the public and to government. But at the same time, taxi drivers are workers who do not enjoy the same worker benefits under the law. It is a relationship between the employer and the employee and government does not get involved. And it is always a challenge because of the way they organise themselves.”
According to journalist and author of the book My Taxi Chronicles, Thandi Xaba, abusive behaviour by taxi drivers could be attributed to broader social dynamics, as well as the internal machinery of the industry itself.
“The industry itself is very vigorous, masculine and full of energy and highly territorial. In addition to that, there are some drivers that tend to be aggressive when on the road and within their own spaces because of the kind of industry this is.
“Not to paint all taxi drivers with the same brush, but for the longest time, taxi drivers have been labelled rowdy, violent and abusive. And this could be because the transport industry is very competitive,” Xaba said.