Commuters fear for their lives as they ride in full taxis, but they blame the government for the industry’s defiance.
“I’m petrified that I’ll end up being the one who carries this disease [Covid-19] into my home, but there is nothing I can do because I need to get to work,” said Samke Sithole from Willowfountain on Monday.
Nohlanhla Mhlongo said she understood the frustration of the taxi industry as they also had financial commitments. “The government opened the airports and the sale of alcohol, but it’s taxis that carry the majority of the people who have to commute to work or school. Yes, the taxi operators are putting our lives at risk but like us, they have no choice. We are victims in a fight between the taxi industry and government,” she said.
The view was unanimous across all the passengers who spoke to The Witness on Monday. This marked the first day of the protest action by the taxi operators following the decision by the South African National Taxi Association (Santaco) that they would no longer be loading 10 passengers as stipulated by lockdown regulations.
This comes after Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula reportedly cancelled a meeting planned for Sunday with taxi operators, who have been negotiating to be able to carry more passengers, and to cross provincial borders during the Covid-19 restrictions. Santaco also rejected the Covid-19 relief of R5 000 that was offered to taxi owners.
Bheki Mthethwa from Sweetwaters appealed to Mbalula to resume the negotiations with the taxi industry.
“It would be negligent of our government not to intervene right now because it’s not just us the adults who are at risk, but our children are also taking taxis to school and the pensioners also use taxis when they go to collect their grants.”
Woodlands’ Pam Ullbricht said the stakes were too high for her because she is asthmatic and lives with people who are terminally ill. “Everybody that drives a kombi, that’s their bread and butter so I believe the government is being a little bit unfair to them. But at the end of the day having to overload the kombi doesn’t make us feel safe. It’s like a catch-22 — we feel for the kombi drivers but our health and safety has to come first,” she said.
Taxi drivers welcomed Santaco’s move. They said they had not had full salaries since lockdown.
“Even unemployed people are better off than me right now. I owe money for child support for the past three months because I’ve only been making enough to pay rent and buy food for three months,” said one of the drivers.
Another said he was aware of the risk they were taking but added they were caught between a rock and a hard place because they needed the money. “At this point I’m just glad that I still have a job because I know a lot of people who have been laid off because of Covid-19. We are also driving around without conductors because of that.”
Santaco uMgungundlovu regional chairperson Bheki Sokhela said they had been operating at a loss since the lockdown and some taxi owners had their cars repossessed because they could no longer afford to pay the instalments. He said a Quantum minibus taxi costs close to R1 million with a monthly instalment of no less than R15 000.
“This is not an act of defiance, we are running businesses and since March we haven’t been able to even cover our expenses or break even — we’ve been operating at a loss — but we continued working because we empathise with our passengers who needed to get to work, to shops, to banks.
“Those who had money had to dig into their savings to pay drivers’ salaries and for fuel. Unfortunately we’ve reached a stage where we can no longer afford to go on.
“If we can’t get a decent Covid-19 relief subsidy then we must be allowed to carry full loads,” said Sokhela.
While there were no major incidents reported around the city, Msunduzi’s traffic team did stop several of the taxis that flouted the regulations and removed passengers.