Driven beyond the limits of tolerance

2009-06-27 00:00

IMAGINE a white South African industry that each year caused the death of many thousands of consumers, mostly black, because of professional incompetence. Imagine further that these white business okes point-blank refused to maintain their business equipment to legislated safety standards, and when challenged to do so went on the rampage.

In response, the Congress of South African Trade Unions would urge boycotts and organise pickets. The South African Communist Party would issue fiery public statements denouncing such callousness and greed.

The machine gun-embracing government of President Jacob Zuma would quickly nip in the bud such dangerous defiance of the South African Police Service. It would feel especially constrained to act firmly if these uppity whiteys threatened to make the country ungovernable and cause chaos during next year’s Soccer World Cup.

Such reactions by the African National Congress government and its trade union allies would be the reasonable reaction of any democratically elected government responding to irresponsible and dangerous behaviour. Imagine then, if you can, why black taxi owners can dispense death and mayhem, threaten treason and blackmail the government, yet have complete political immunity?

The Johannesburg Metro’s Operation Nomakanjani, infelicitously meaning “no matter what”, against reckless and negligent driving was this week canned. Some 2 000 drivers had been fined, 72 arrested, and many unroadworthy vehicles — held together only by baling wire and barefaced cheek — had been impounded.

Angry because most of those caught in the crackdown were taxi drivers, the industry threatened a strike and to blockade the highways. Within days, the police were forced into a humiliating climb down by their political masters, although the police spokesperson put a brave face on it: “It’s not that we are scared of them,” she sniffled.

Well, actually, yes it is. SA’s traffic police generally don’t dare fine taxi drivers for the many moving offences that take place under the noses of their patrols. Skipping traffic lights and stop signs, driving the wrong way into oncoming traffic, illegal U-turns and dangerous overtaking, all targeted by Operation Nomakanjani, go unpunished throughout the country most of the time.

And while the cops say they are not scared of these guys, they certainly should be. The National Taxi Alliance (NTA) recently threatened “to turn Cape Town into another Baghdad” if the government did not give it complete control of the planned Bus Rapid Transport system that it is committed to have operational in time for the Soccer World Cup.

The NTA spokesperson, taking his leaf from the ANC Youth League Manual on Subversion of the Rule of Law, said that the alliance is prepared to die for its demands and “we will kill anyone who gets in our way”. Unsurprisingly, there was not a peep from the government except to promise to “consult” further with the drivers.

The rudimentary driving skills of many drivers goes hand in hand with a supreme indifference to other road users, an arrogance fostered by the government’s kid-glove approach. The industry is unregulated and owners mostly don’t pay taxes or traffic fines, while thousands of the drivers operate with forged licences. Their scorched-earth approach crippled the National Party’s subsidised bus system. They have also thumbed their collective noses at the ANC’s taxi R7,7 billion recapitalisation project, aimed at getting junkers off the road.

Some 1 700 of last year’s 14 000 road fatalities involved minibuses, whereas they number only 200 000 out of the 6,5 million vehicles on South African roads. In the same period, 167 people died in mining accidents.

Cosatu marched, the SACP rained abuse, and the government promised stricter controls. No, silly, not of the taxi industry, of the mining industry.

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