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Full taxis are a South African reality even virus can't change

Passengers in a minibus taxi wear protective face masks at the Randburg taxi rank in Johannesburg on May 14, 2020.

WALDO SWIEGERS/BLOOMBERG

By ROXANNE HENDERSON AND AMOGELANG MBATHA | Bloomberg | Published: July 25, 2020

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South Africa won praise for its response to the coronavirus outbreak, including curfews and an alcohol ban. But when it comes to minibus taxis, the unregulated vehicles shuttling people from home to workplace, economic and political realities mean it's better to fill seats and hope for the best.

When a lockdown began in March, many of the Toyota Quantums flouted an initial instruction to run at 70% capacity. Now, even as South Africans are banned from visiting family and social distancing is enforced in restaurants, taxis are allowed to be crammed full as long as they keep their windows partially open.

The change shows the influence of an industry that 40% of South Africans rely on each day. Before the capacity ruling was relaxed, taxi associations rejected government aid as insufficient and threatened to almost triple prices in Gauteng, the country's commercial hub. On June 22, drivers struck, blockading roads.

"We don't care about going against these lockdown rules," said Sibonelo Nxumalo, a 35-year-old who has been ferrying people from Bara taxi-station in Soweto to work in Johannesburg for a decade. "This virus is already spreading and there's nothing we can do about that. The main thing is that we are suffering financially and attending to our hunger is more important."

President Cyril Ramaphosa's administration has little choice.

The nation's bus system is limited and dilapidated passenger trains are prone to lengthy delays. For many workers living in low-income areas known as townships, located on the outskirts of major cities as a result of apartheid, taxis are the only option.

Not that travelers prefer it that way. Taxi drivers are known for driving aggressively, stopping without warning for passengers and causing mayhem during rush hour.

Even among Ramaphosa's allies, allowing taxis to load at full capacity has opponents.

"We disagree with the government's position," Sizwe Pamla, national spokesman for the Congress of South African Trade Unions, said. "If social distancing was a thing, it should be applied in the taxi industry, unless we are saying we are abandoning the whole idea."

The 1.8 million-member labor group is seeking a meeting with taxi operators and the government, Pamla said. It plans to "explore the possibility of a protest action" if unsatisfied with the outcome.

The South African Medical Association is also a critic. While trips of less than 20 minutes in a vehicle with open windows are less risky, longer commutes without proper social distancing increase chances of infection, even with masks, said Chairwoman Angelique Coetzee.

"This decision was not made in the best interest of patients, but in the best interest of taxi unions," Coetzee said. About 6% of infected commuters could end up hospitalized and among those, half could die, she said.

Still, taxis have a strong political voice.

The largely informal trade makes an estimated 50 billion rand ($3 billion) in annual revenue and accounts for 15 million commuter trips daily, according to data compiled by SA Taxi, a lender to the industry. That compares with just under 1.5 million bus and train journeys, it said. During apartheid, it was one of the few industries open to black entrepreneurs.

While most drivers don't pay income tax as they work informally, the industry does pay 7 billion rand annually in fuel levies, according to SA Taxi's estimates.

There are regulations to control the entry of operators to the industry and to manage taxi councils, but no rules govern service quality, infrastructure and pricing, said Ofentse Mokwena, a transport economist and lecturer at South Africa's North-West University.

Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula is trying to improve the government's relationship with the industry through plans to introduce a new public-transport subsidy that includes minibus taxis, and with a promise to get the sector back to full operating capacity, according to Mokwena. Mbalula said July 16 the decision to increase taxi loading came after "extensive" consultations and that recommendations from health experts were considered.

For many taxi drivers, the lockdown has been crippling.

Taxi drivers are "entrepreneurs who wake up every day to provide an essential service," said Maroba Maduma, a spokesman for SA Taxi. "They've had to operate at fixed hours at 70% capacity, but the costs of operating their businesses were not cut."

Blessing Khumalo, who's been driving minibus taxis for nine years, is three months in arrears on rent. Before the virus outbreak, he made daily trips worth at least 1,260 rand. Now, that's been slashed to 480 rand, even with an increase in fares from this month.

"We are just helping other people go to work. I am not benefiting," he said. "I wake up every day at 4 a.m. and go home at 8 p.m., but empty-handed."

Still, with the coronavirus outbreak approaching its peak in Gauteng, where Johannesburg and Pretoria are located, many commuters aren't happy with the government's decision and the pressure exerted by taxi associations.

"I depend on taxis," 29-year-old schoolteacher Thandiwe Mrwamba said, while waiting to catch the first of two vehicles that will get her home. "Now, it's not safe."
 

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