Our way or the highway: Govt seen to buckle under pressure from taxi industry, say analysts

  • Government caved under pressure from the taxi industry, political analysts say.
  • President Ramaphosa announced on Sunday that taxis could operate at 100% capacity for short-distance trips.
  • But Health Minister Zweli Mkhize denied government felt any pressure from the taxi industry.

The concession made by President Cyril Ramaphosa and the National Coronavirus Command Council on the load capacity for taxis has exposed government's limited ability to intervene in the sector, political analysts say.

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In his address to the nation on Sunday, Ramaphosa announced that taxis would be allowed to operate at 100% capacity for short-distance trips. Taxis which travel further than 200km would be limited to a maximum capacity of 70%.

This came after the taxi industry locked horns with Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula on government's coronavirus relief fund efforts.

Taxi associations, primarily the South African National Taxi Council (Santaco), wanted significantly more relief aid than government was offering. Santaco threatened to defy government's regulations by going back to a 100% loading capacity.

The gazetted regulations limited taxi drivers to a 70% load capacity to ensure physical distancing in their vehicles.

"The response to the taxi industry reflects the practical limitations facing government in the extent to which they can intervene in that sector. The reality of not having enough money to support an unsubsidised transport sector and the harsher economic implications of the lockdown on taxis limited the options of the state," political analyst Ongama Mtimka said.

Idealistic and impractical

Mtimka added the idea that the state should have fought the pressure is well understood, and perhaps even preferable, but it's idealistic and impractical.

Considered the backbone of the country's transport system, the multi-billion rand industry, which is highly fragmented, has been at odds with government for decades. This has been attributed to a reluctance for tighter regulations and a perceived reluctance by government to resolve ongoing problems. 

Professor Mcebisi Ndletyana has said he believes government has allowed the taxi industry to become emboldened by "pussyfooting" over regulations, taxation and safety issues for years.

"All that the taxi industry has had to do is to threaten violence and government backs down. Government emboldened them from a long time ago when backing down whenever they faced aggression from the taxi industry," he said.

"This industry has continued to behave in the way that they have and government had allowed them to do that so what you see now is that the alcohol industry is unfortunately being targeted because it's a soft target," he added.

In a media address on Monday, Health Minister Zweli Mkhize said various health issues were considered before the decision was taken. Mkhize denied that government had buckled under pressure from the industry.

He said some of the points they considered included:

  • Studies from South Korea and China, which shows the virus spreads very quickly between people sitting in a confined space for more than 20 minutes;
  • it also shows that air conditioners circulate the virus in a way that it spreads beyond a metre;
  • emerging evidence of the virus being potentially airborne was also a concern;
  • evidence that the virus can survive for several days on metal surfaces. There are significant bare metal contact points in taxis that people can come into contact with;
  • ventilation of the environment with natural air moving through the space and exiting into open air reduces the concentration of the virus in ambient air substantially;
  • people most at risk are those spending the longest time in taxis – drivers and conductors.

Owing to these considerations, Mkhize said: 

  • Drivers and conductors should complete a daily symptom check before being allowed to drive a taxi.
  • Drivers, conductors and passengers should at all times wear a face mask.
  • Drivers and conductors should practice physical distancing when out of their taxis, especially at taxi ranks.
  • Windows should be opened sufficiently to allow substantial airflow across the front seats of the taxi.
  • The taxi interior and surfaces, such as door handles, should be wiped down at least once a day.
  • Drivers should ensure that passengers are kept at 1m apart in queues at taxi ranks while waiting to board their transport. 

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