Ofentse Mokwena | Should taxis be an essential service?

ofentse mokwena bw
ofentse mokwena bw
  • Should the taxi industry be essentialised or professionalised? Or, for that matter, both or neither?
  • Essentialisation implies that a service is difficult to interrupt because its operation is essential for society's wellbeing.
  • Lockdown has cast a different light on the taxi industry.
  • Taxi associations, owners and operators could transform their business for wealth creation, development and sustainability. But the options open to them would hold different risks and benefits for consumers and labour. 

Come rain or shine, shelter or none, early mornings or late evenings, the imperfect rustling petrol tank taxi would come to queue at the rank, or find me waiting near the outline. Showing up every time, that’s professional.

Little did I know that some neighbours and distant relatives were behind the steering wheel. Driving past the years blurred by periods of excessive violence, market confusion in the face of the National Land Transport Transition Act, and the culmination of a bad reputation. Staring through the windows of headlines, blood torn tales, and Taxi Awards mixed the interviews behind many of the questions about the industry.

One of them had to do with labour: the drivers, owners, associations and companies behind the movement of people in SA. When they strike, there is definite chaos. Without them, during a pandemic there would have been little mobility and access. Are they essential or should they be professionalised, or both (or none)?

Pick a path.

When the 2018 bus strike struck

The number of days lost due to protests rose from 480 000 in 2017 to 1.95 million in 2018 (another figure is 1.15m), a macroeconomic variable in household wellbeing. That year had commuters who used scheduled transport strike-struck, and searching for other modes to get around. It cost the transport industry R131m in wages lost due to strike action, that was 49% of the R266m in lost wages for the year 2018.

The 18 April press release rippled through Wednesday’s airwaves: "The Union is left with no option but to call on all its members in the bus sector to down tools. Both union members and non-union members will embark on an indefinite strike until employers meet workers’ demands".

Commuters shuffled for alternative transport, minibus taxis were probably the best alternative. On the 17th day, negotiations collapsed due to the deadlock between the unions and employers hovering between wages. Not only leaving commuters stranded, but potentially influencing the operating costs of the bus companies—particularly the contracted ones, which are subsidised.

The bus strike was reported to involved 17 000 drivers concluded mid-May 2018 with a staggered shift toward 9% and 8% in wage increases a year apart. While these agreements only held the Band-Aid for the bus market, they did not account for the cost incurred by commuters, let alone the transport anxiety only the minibus taxi and passenger rail services could attempt to relieve.

Calls for the essentialisation of public transport

Fares in the Western Cape for example, increased by 5% from 1 July that year, but subsidies rose at a much higher rate. Commuters using traditional scheduled bus transport receive subsidies through the Public Transport Operations Grant (PTOG). It serves to enable bus companies to cover the necessary distance in spatially fragmented areas and benefit from the patronage they can carry in more dense areas.

For the 2018-19 financial year had bus subsidies increase by 7.3% per passenger to R20.25 and by 5.7% per km to R25.17, partly due to about 2% fewer passengers per vehicle (maybe because of the strike). Further subsidy allocations were set to increase from R5.9 billion in 2018 to R7.1 billion by 2022 in order to cushion the commuters who depend on the bus transport mode. This is a consistent and transparent programme of allocations aimed at cushioning commuters who use bus transport.

These subsidies have their tickets etched Alexandra’s Bus Boycotts of 1957 lead by commuters. The bus fare increases sparked stark attention on the living conditions of Africans in townships, and propelled a regime of subsidy interventions through 1944 and 1972 that shuffled between levies and subsidies.

Buses and trains were primary transport modes then, but now, with sprawling neighbourhoods and rising incomes, the minibus taxi industry dominates the public passenger transport market. It served as the primary alternative for the stranded commuters, possibly pushing some beyond their monthly budgets in cash (i.e. unequal prices for the same trip) and time (i.e. not the same routes or different travel durations including the boarding queue).

Jenni Gobind presents some evidence that unreliable public transport in SA induces anxiety; contributes to poor performance at work; and should be borne in mind by employers. When the strike struck the industry to a halt, commuters bore the brunt of deadlocks between unions and employers.

Sensing the commuters’ distress, the National Black Consumers Council made a submission to the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration’s (CCMA) Essential Services Committee (ESC) consider a line of inquiry about the essentialisation of public transport. This determination fell through. Leading to its decision, after submissions from employers and employees, the ESC report indicated that:

"While the increased numbers of commuters on both the taxi and rail service does have an impact on [some], there was no compelling submission on the endangerment to life, the personal safety and health of the whole or part of the population. The commuters will face the same dangers and risks using these services that prevail at any time and is not peculiar to strike periods only."

It is quite interesting that services with an impact on 'personal safety of the whole or part of the population' require people who provide them to commute.

It is quite interesting, at least at a policy level, that services with an impact on 'personal safety of the whole or part of the population' require people who provide them to commute. Yet, the commute itself was not necessarily essential, until now.

Essentialise or professionalise?

Lockdown Level 1, passenger bus and rail transport were by and large halted, and the minibus taxi industry remained operational to serve essential workers. Minibuses continued to operate with the promise of relief in sight as cashflow was thinning from the negotiated 70% capacity rule. At lockdown Level 3 bus and passenger rail are operational, both with capacity restrictions. This may affect the subsidy allocations for the operators in this regard.

Did the minibus taxi industry’s continuation of services during lockdown legitimise some of its essential characteristics amidst the pandemic? Or does the experience highlight the need to professionalise the industry for better quality reforms?

Essentialisation implies that a specific service is difficult to interrupt because its continued operation is essential for the well-being of society.

In scheduled public transport traditional benefits such as medical aid and retirement reserves may exist for much of the transport industry’s negotiations, the minibus taxi industry’s labour market appears to be poorly regulated and left to the market.

Should it be that the dominant transporter of everyday people, is left without encouraging drivers, owners and associations to have some degree of wealth to transfer to the next generation? Essentialising the industry could catalyse and reorganise public transport, professionalising it, and introducing standards for practice found in nursing, teaching and other public professions (not just licencing and some training).

Even without legislated essentialisation, it is quite clear that associations, owners and operators could transform their business for their collective development, wealth creation and long-term sustainability. The Transport Education and Training Authority (TETA) has been pivotal in this process, spearheading the education and training of public transport operators and owners over the years through its Taxi Chamber and Road Passenger Chamber.

From a commercial flexibility perspective, Taxi Associations have been transformed into Transport Operating Companies (TOCs) to run the scheduled Bus Rapid Transport services we see in most of the Metropolitans in SA. Yes, "taxi bosses" were empowered to run the Reya Vayas and MyCitis.

While it does take some capacity building, and policy foresight, associations may become TOCs even without BRT systems and accumulate new forms of capital at the taxi ranks, shopping centres nearby, and petrol stations for instance. Contracted bus companies and TOCs could make proposals to convert parts of the roadways into dedicated corridors as Reginal Kgwedi proposed in 2016, with affordable infrastructure and attract investment to transport interchanges. At this point Shaun Mhlanga’s notion of ‘self-regulation’ comes up again, but for the purpose of self-essentialisation.

As minibus taxis kept operating throughout the lockdown period, I started thinking about essentialisation and professionalisation. Essentialisation as paved path could unlock certain benefits for passengers but could limit labour’s influence, but induce policy pressure to reform the sector (for better or worse).

Professionalisation as an unpaved path, passing through various types of opportunities and risks for commuters, operators and transport companies many beyond our foresight. One has a legislated journey, ready to follow and the other is rugged and unknown. The policy crossroads are whether unpaved paths that spread should be paved; and if paved paths bring unpaved journeys that spread.

Ofentse Mokwena is a transport economist, lecturer, researcher and podcast host. Views expressed are his own. 

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