Call me a taxi, Mr Spaceman

This article was first published in the Financial Mail on 12 August 2021.

Cape Town may have escaped the looting that devastated swathes of KZN and Gauteng in the second week of July, but that week also marked the start of an escalation of taxi-related violence in the city that massively disrupted the lives, livelihoods and education of tens of thousands of people.

In July alone, at least 24 people were murdered in the dispute between Cape Amalgamated Taxi Association and the Congress of Democratic Taxi Association, over a route between Paarl and Belville. Many others were wounded in shooting incidents.

Taxi services were suspended for almost a month. The train system has all but collapsed, and bus and Uber drivers were targeted for trying to fill the gap. So for the tens of thousands of people who rely on these taxis daily, it was well-nigh impossible to get to and from work, school, clinics and shops.

The length of time of the service suspension was unprecedented, but the circumstances hardly unusual. Cape Town taxi users are accustomed to bouts of violence which claim the lives of taxi drivers, passengers and bystanders. It is commonplace for commuters to arrive at taxi ranks on their way home from work to discover that some new incident during the day has shut down services, leaving them stranded.

Media coverage of these “minor” disruptions is relatively scanty. Mainstream radio stations’ traffic reports rarely include updates useful for those who rely on taxis. While coverage subsequently improved, for at least a week after the start of the July chaos, there were no regular public updates on whether or not taxis had resumed services. Commuters had to actually go to the taxi ranks just to see whether they might be able to get to work.

The public reactions of authorities were infuriatingly anodyne – more suited to breaking up a playground squabble than responding to havoc-wreaking and horrific violence.

Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula said his department was “disappointed with the recent turn of events”.

Recently-appointed Western Cape MEC for Transport Daylin Mitchell seemed hopelessly out of his depth, emphasising the WC government’s zero tolerance for violence and lawlessness, while violence and lawlessness ran rampant around him.

In his council speech on 29 July, Mayor Dan Plato said that the WC Government “has done all they can to address this situation, including the closure of a major route”. How the people who rely on that route will get to work goes unmentioned. After three weeks of “talks”, there is little evidence that the underlying causes of the dispute have been addressed. On resumption of services, Mitchell thanked “commuters that have been inconvenienced by this time”, as if a burst water pipe had closed a road for a few hours.

On 20 July, Golden Arrow bus services were suspended following the shooting of one of the company’s bus drivers, in the mouth, the day before. The company said that the suspension affected around 100 000 commuters. On the same day, Jeff Bezos launched himself into space, in an eleven-minute joyride that cost $5.5bn.

The news broadcast I was listening to which reported the Bezos story then moved straight to reports that people were spending hours walking to and from work in Cape Town to avoid losing their jobs. It was a ridiculous contrast – a fabulously wealthy man zooming around in orbit while thousands of people trudged for hours along the N2 in the rain. It was also a stunning illustration of how our economic and political system has failed to address problems that are eminently solvable, but ignored because they only affect poor people.

The saddest part of all is that those who are worst affected appear to have given up hope that political leaders will be able to solve the problem. They are resigned to this kind of disruption – which would bring down governments in many parts of the world – being a regular part of their lives.

Wouldn’t it be great if more of the wealth, power and technology deployed to send the Bezoses of the world into orbit were directed to resolving some of the pervasive problems that don’t bother the rich, but have such a critical impact on daily quality of life for those less fortunate? I can’t pretend to understand the mind of a spaceman billionaire, but it seems to me that would be a far more meaningful and personally satisfying contribution than an eleven-minute round-trip to space.

By Tracey Davies

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