Day of anarchy in PMB

2018-01-26 14:09
A government car burns on Langalibalele (Longmarket) Street outside the New Taxi Rank during widespread protests by the taxi fraternity, who have demanded Msunduzi soften traffic sanctions.

A government car burns on Langalibalele (Longmarket) Street outside the New Taxi Rank during widespread protests by the taxi fraternity, who have demanded Msunduzi soften traffic sanctions. (Supplied)

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WATCH: Moments leading up to car being torched in #PmbTaxiStrike

2018-01-26 10:56

Watch as protesters get ready to torch a vehicle on Langalibalele Street in Pietermaritzburg, during a strike by minibus taxi drivers. WATCH

Anarchy reigned in Pietermaritzburg on Thursday as taxi operators trashed the streets, burning and stoning cars, looting shops and intimidating taxi passengers and drivers.

The CBD resembled a war zone as groups of rogue operators roamed the streets, causing mayhem.

Armed with pangas and sticks, protesters were seen pulling people out of taxis and chasing innocent people down streets.

A KZN government vehicle was set on fire outside the Natalia building on Thursday afternoon.

There was also footage of groups breaking into shops and looting them.

The CBD became a no-go zone for the public throughout the day and many people could not get to work.

SAPS spokesperson Sergeant Mthokozisi Ngobese confirmed that two people were arrested for public violence. However, journalists at City Hall saw police rounding up “at least a dozen” demonstrators, many of whom appeared to be drunk.

Ngobese also said on Thursday that police were ready in case the protests continued on Friday.

“We have mobilised specialised units and are putting feelers out there and have intensified our visibility.”

Amidst the violent protest, Msunduzi Mayor Themba Njilo warned that he will not bow to the demands of the violent demonstrators.

The protesters shut down every taxi rank in the city, leaving countless commuters stranded.

Around midday, police began firing tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters in front of the City Hall, where they had blockaded the road with taxis demanding that the mayor collect a memorandum.

The demonstrators have threatened a full shutdown of the city if Msunduzi does not respond within seven days to a full list of demands handed to Njilo.

Protesters blockaded East Street with burning tyres and dumped heaps of rubbish on Church Street, between Garfield Street and Murphy Street.

Wielding pangas, knobkerries and wooden planks, protesters at various points of the day blocked Church Street, Langalibalele (Longmarket) Street and Chief Albert Luthuli (Commercial) Street.

They also targeted the Edendale area­, blockading routes in and out of the CBD, including Moses Mabhida Road, Skhumbuzo Ngwenya Road, next to Slangspruit, and Sweetwaters Road.

They had also caused disturbances along Mayors Walk.

The New, Imbali, West Street and Prof Nyembezi taxi ranks, all in the CBD, were not operating on Thursday.

Groups of protesters were seen charging at taxis that were operating, stopping them and apparently intimidating drivers and passengers. Witness reporters saw this happen seven times in various areas.

Even after peak hour, there was no respite for non-striking taxi drivers and commuters, as the protesters intensified their action by patrolling some routes to make sure no one loaded any passengers.

There were also reports that schools in the areas affected by the protests closed early on Thursday.

Protesters gathered outside City Hall on Thursday afternoon and demanded Njilo address them, with some threatening to stone the building if he did not come out. When he eventually came out, tomatoes, bananas and liquor-scented ice were thrown his direction, much of it ending up on those who stood next to him.

Njilo told The Witness that some taxi owners had distanced themselves from the protests.

'The law will take its course'

Msunduzi Municipality spokesperson Thobeka Mafumbatha said they condemned the illegal strike that took place in the strongest possible terms.

“We have received the memorandum from the taxi operators and we will be responding to it through the organised taxi body. We would like to extend our sincere apologies to the residents, visitors, businesses that were affected. We are working with the police and municipal security to ensure the situation is contained. We condemn the vandalising of property and the law will take its course where necessary.”

“The striking taxi operators say their problem is with traffic fines. We first received complaints that there were not enough traffic officers in the city, so we deployed more officers.

“Now, they are saying there are too many traffic officers arresting them and that the traffic fines are too expensive for them,” Njilo said.

The mayor added that Msunduzi cannot lower traffic fines as they are set by the courts. He said taxi drivers were notorious for not having valid Professional Driving Permits (PrDP), and for driving overloaded taxis.

According to the updated Msunduzi fines list, a driver not possessing a PrDP can be charged R2 500. An overloaded vehicle can incur a fine of R2 500, and vehicles “carrying standing passengers” can be fined R500. “We cannot allow them do as they please or they will run this city to the ground. We will not allow that,” Njilo said.

The situation was calm by on Thursday evening, and all blockades were cleared.

Taxi boss Norman Mkhize said protesters demanded Msunduzi clear all fines accumulated by taxi drivers.

He claimed City traffic officers were targeting them. “Traffic officers must not stop taxis before 8 am. We don’t sell weed, we carry the ratepayers of this city. If you stop us before 8 am, you inconvenience our passengers who are trying to get to work on time,” said Mkhize.

He said they were unhappy with the filthy condition of the taxi ranks. They also demanded the municipality build taxi stops with shelters for passengers.

The group was dispersed by members of the Public Order Policing Unit as they continued to picket in front of the City Hall for more than 30 minutes after Njilo had received their list of demands.

“The mayor has taken our memorandum of demands so we have to give him seven days to meet with relevant structures so that we can get our response timeously,” said another taxi boss, Bheki Sokhela.

However, the group refused to leave until police fired tear gas, which sent them running in different directions.

Sfiso Ntuli, a taxi driver who was part of the protest, explained that taxi drivers could not afford excessive fines.

“I earn R800 a week. How am I expected to pay a R7 000 fine with that money? There are no designated parking spaces for taxis. Njilo must tell us where to park if we want to let passengers off,” said Ntuli.

The tension seems to have its roots in an incident when a taxi driver was arrested at the Prof Nyembezi taxi rank on Wednesday after being involved in a fight with a traffic officer. Police confirmed that a taxi driver had been arrested and charged with interfering with an officer on duty.

A number of stranded commuters told The Witness they had been removed from taxis by unruly protesters.

“They pulled all of us out of the taxi. It was very scary because they were armed with bush knives and sticks and were yelling insults and swearing at us and the driver,” said one.

“If we don’t get a lift to work, we have no other choice but to start walking,” said the commuter who was forced out of a taxi to Sobantu.

Two pupils from Arthur Blaxall School said they were stranded on Langalibalele Street with no way of returning home to Edendale. “We took a taxi to town at 6 am and were forced out of the taxi in France. They said no taxis will operate today,” said one.

He said they managed to get a lift to the city centre but by the time they had arrived they had missed their school transport.

“Our parents and school don’t know that we are stranded here. We also don’t know what to do as we don’t have cell phones to call home so we will just sit here until the strike ends and so we can get a taxi back home,” said the pupil.

Taxi drivers from Elandskop, who had not heeded the call to strike, said some of their members had been assaulted, while others had cell phones and cash stolen during the skirmishes.

Muzi Mahlambi, a spokesperson for the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Education, said principals were advised to assess the situation and where required, close schools early.

KZN Department of Transport spokesperson Mluleki Mtungwa said they condemned this behaviour.

The regional division of the South African National Taxi Council could not be reached on Thursday.

KZN Health MEC Dr Sibongiseni Dhlomo strongly condemned the burning of a departmental vehicle and disruptions to healthcare service delivery at Edendale Hospital caused by the taxi protest.

In a statement, the department said in addition to the torching of the vehicle on Langalibalele Street, the protesting taxi drivers blocked access to and from Edendale Hospital — resulting in some patients having to be sent home.

“While patients struggled to get to the hospital, some operations had to be cancelled as doctors could not get to work on time.”

The statement said the protest action had impacted on Edendale Hospital where appointments and operations in various sections had to be cancelled.

Dhlomo said: “What has happened here is completely unacceptable. We cannot afford to have a situation where access to healthcare — including for people in life-threatening situations — can be disrupted by a few people who have grievances.

“No matter how legitimate these people believe their grievances to be, we cannot have people dying just because of the irresponsible actions of a few. It simply cannot be justified.”

He said the department always gets complaints that they do not provide communities with enough vehicles, including ambulances, to service them.

“If the very few that we have get burnt, it makes the situation even worse. Community concerns, even those of the taxi industry, cannot be solved better by burning or destroying government property that is meant to service the community.”

An armed protester clings to a taxi amidst the mayhem in the CBD on Thursday.

Taxis blockade the CBD during Thursday’s protest.

Read more on:    pietermaritzburg

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