Ok, so it is a sort of unwritten, accepted fact that, when you live in Africa, life is seldom logical and predictable. In fact it is one of the attractions of living in this crazy-colourful-charismatic-chaotic continent.... you know, life on the edge, adreniline rush just by waking up, that kind of thing!
But sometimes the things that happen in society, and the way the government reacts (or fails to react, most likely, in our current dispensation) are so gobsmackingly illogical, destructive, STUPID, that even when allowing for the 'life in Africa' factor, they cause you to sit back and shake your head in wonder.
Minibus Taxis are the subject of much heated debate in South Africa. The industry emerged out of the repressive Apartheid years, mushrooming as freedom of movement was suddenly allowed, and government control over public transport ended.
They quickly set themselves up as the mafia of movement, the terror of transport, the scourge of the streets, the killer of commuters....... you get the picture.
Over the years, a kind of dumb acceptance has settled in, there is one set of rules for taxi drivers and another for the rest of society. The rules of the road apply to normal drivers, taxis have only 1 rule... 'stay off my turf or prepare to die'.
Now I know all this sounds extreme, and by now you are thinking "what is this woman ranting on about? She must be exaggerating."
Well I wish I was. In South Africa, to enter a minibus taxi is to play Russian Roulette.
- If you are a woman,or even a child, there is a very good chance that you will suffer some form of abuse. It has been publicly announced that any woman boarding a taxi in a short skirt is making a declaration that she wants to be raped.
- Overloading is the norm, and taxis designed with tight seating for 14 have been frequently found to have up to 30 onboard.
- Roadworthiness of the vehicle seems to be a relative thing.... normal cars need to meet certain standards, taxis can fall to pieces around their passengers with impunity.
- if you happen to enter a taxi involved in a turf war, you stand a good chance of being caught in crossfire, shootouts between taxi drivers have become so common that they often don't even make it into the press. Occasionally if an innocent child or bystander gets killed, it may receive a mention.
- speeding down multi lane thoroughfares, weaving in and out of the traffic, stopping suddenly in the middle of a lane of traffic to pick up or drop of passengers, and hooting loudly the whole way is standard taxi behaviour.
- the traffic accident statistics are regularly boosted with horrendous taxi accidents in which, due to the overloading, unnecessarily large numbers of people are killed or maimed.
The latest actions of the taxi owners in Port Elizabeth eclipse all this selfishness. Because of all the rah-rah over the 2010 World Cup Soccer, and the sudden realisation that we need infrastructure to cope with the hoped for influx of visitors (don't even get me STARTED on that subject, we'll be here all day!)... the powers that be are constructing a special bus route and upgrading the public transport system.
Perceiving a threat to their strangle-hold on the transport of workers (after all if people have a choice about how to get to work, you can be sure a lot fewer would subject themselves to the abuse handed out by the taxi drivers) they decided to go on strike! Their plan is to let a few hundred thousand people miss work, bring industry to a halt, jeopardise the jobs of the workers which are already under threat due to the economic crisis, and shoot at any bus or car that tries to help them get to work, in order to force the Municipality to abandon plans for improving public transport. To read the response of the Mayor of Port Elizabeth to their letter of demand, go to MyPE.
Now that all this liberty has been won, and the democracy achieved at so high a price, I find it hard to come to terms with the type of people, taxi drivers, politicians and fat cat business men amongst them, who are set on a path of self enrichment at the expense of their own people. There are many thousands of people who depend on taxis to get to work every day, and who work on a 'no work, no pay' basis. Thousands of scholars also rely on them, and those writing their Matric final exams have been unable to get there. They are the ones who are paying for the greed of this handful of people who control the lives of so many.
I will give you just one example. I have a domestic worker who comes to my house twice a week. She works for someone else for another two days. She is a widow in her mid 50s, with 4 children to support. One is studying, (on a bursary) one is still at school, and the other two have left school but have been unable to find work. She is an unskilled worker who works slowly and not very well, largely due to poor health. I pay her well above the average that is paid for such a job, but even so, she earns a pittance for her 4 days of labour. Every cent counts. She was in despair this morning when she phoned and said there were still no taxis or busses, so she can't come to work today. I offered to collect her, but she said no, it is not safe. Even though I said I would pay her, because it is not her fault, it will still be only next week before she can come and collect her money.
Now the things I battle to come to terms with are these....
The people who are most at risk in all this are the passengers, who are PAYING CUSTOMERS!! These are the people who had the courage to stand against a repressive regime and use passive resistance and mass action to win their freedom. Yet they tolerate this abuse and blatant disregard for their lives from the taxi drivers.
I cannot comprehend how someone will, day after day, PAY someone for a service, and willingly submit to being treated so badly. With the high level of unionization in this country, and emphasis on human rights, workers rights, consumers rights, democratic rights and freedom to choose, it is just beyond me why a lobby has not yet been formed to insist on the taxis putting the comfort and safety of their customers first.
And I also wonder where the law enforcement in our country is whenever the taxis break the law.
Do the taxi operators think that being "previously disadvantaged " gives them the right to trample on the rights of all the other previously disadvantaged people who stood side by side with them, to bring about the freedom from oppression that makes their industry possible?
The best quote that comes to mind in this regard is one of my favourites from former President Nelson Mandela...
"For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others."