#228 The fabricated formalisation of the taxi industry

In SA, it seems we will continue to undervalue this controversial industry until it is reintroduced to us on a boat with all the bells and whistles.

Did you know that it was illegal to wake up one morning and start transporting passengers at a fee without a Professional Drivers Permit (PDP), and an Operating Licence? While the PDP is applied for, the Provincial Regulatory Entities are responsible for issuing Operating Licences based on the data presented in Integrated Transport Plans about route and association performance.

Even the vehicles that are deemed suitable for transporting passengers in minibus taxi are prescribed by the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS) with specific requirements that they are not automatic vehicles, and even a list of suitable vehicles published since the taxi recapitalisation programme. Interestingly, with all the plans, policies and entities tasked with regulating the minibus taxi industry, it is called “informal”, or it is in need of “formalisation”. It was the same wording during the R 1.35bn gratuity discourse, with conditions that were no different from the current policy.  Perhaps it is the gap between policy implementation and uncapped growth at local level that push opinions far from the target.

It is interesting to note how the term ‘working class’ has emerged in the political economic rethoric echoeing in South African skulls. However, blowing the dust off this term reveals how it refers to the many citizens who do not own the means of production—no companies, no land or significant technology for productive purposes. Whereas in the case of the taxi industry, Meshack Khosa emphasised how it is a manifestation of black-capital accumulation. Tim Gibbs explained at some point how it is an intersection between former foremen, factory supervisors and leaders at the migrant hostels who eventually found meaningful commerce in steering commutes. Of course, the late Colleen McCaul did outline the commuting conundrum where both destructive competition, violence and criminality co-exist with providing mobility, access and tapping into value chains.

Whereas decades of policy and institutional neglect at municipal level, failed to breathe life in the National Land Transport Transition Act, and the National Land Transport Act. These policies needed warm bodies in municipalities to work directly with the transport industry as a whole: enforcing the law, and implementing transport plans. It appears that it was through these cracks of inaction that criminal elements shot through the concrete, tearing it down into rubble in some areas—while in others the core remains intact.

Formal Knowledge

How can an industry that has existed since 1977, and has grown to dominate the transport market be called “informal”? When it is legitimately normal to commute by taxi, and hand-gestures, prices and routes can be found by way of talking with the taxi marshal—long before Google. It is rather strange how an “informal” industry could be so similar no matter where in South Africa you are. In Cape Town and Durban—at least other coastal areas, one finds the culture of sliding-door-men, or gartjies who seek and slip passengers in to the taxi along the route, count the money, and tells the driver if someone needs to get off.

Inland be it Johannesburg, Polokwane or whereever the front seat is for the mathematician who will recieive the money from the back and calculate change, and totals for each destination with a unique price. The driver already knows how much he should get—she’s been listening to the commuters, but the mathematician is an ordinary passenger just sitting on the calculator’s seat.

These practices are standard and may differ somewhat, but anyone who’s used a taxi is familiar with these business processes—even without a legislation that stipulates this. An outsider, or an observer would be baffled and fascinated by the crude nature of an indigenous system with an exotic tone as if it was an National Geographic moment.

It is a similar line of reasoning that purports that “natives” were discovered, and painted a continent black—drawing lines on land that had no printed title deed, but belonged to someone or some people. Operating outside of the Companies Act, can do that to someone who’s roaming the concrete jungle working the road to bring food home each day. But what is different is that the taxi industry’s recognition and formalisation already happened before. But for some reason the popular language is to dilute its progress by dismissing its existence as a key part of the mobility and access of our people. It is out of fear that the darkest continent was chopped up for scraps, but it had to be invented first before it existed.

Inherited heritage

The SA economy inherited State Owned Enteprises which still leak severly, but an industry that has not demanded a dime still spins in the media’s wheel when there are fingers to a barrel. Whereas, when they buy franchises, petrol stations and others programmes they fall to bottom: ignored, underreported and poorly discussed. Branded as “unregulated”, or celebrated as black business—barely a multi-generational conversation.

Uber’s entry into the South African market was similar to a virus infecting unsuspecting individuals who owned cars. They suddenly had a right to transport passengers outside of the regulations one finds applicable to the metered taxi industry—which is what a ride-hailing service is.

Without associations, without permits, and with an international company the mereted taxi market was flooded and customers celebrated the unregulated convenience. They were conviced that it was a formal practice, but it was not—the legislation only reflected its existence after the fact. Yet, here we are calling a legitimate industry recongised throughout the value chain “informal”, as if it landed from the sky, rather than as it raised many of us and our families to where we are today.

Falling from the sky

The same can be said for Bus Rapid Transit systems: many of which came through a public transport strategy which explicitly focused on transforming the public transport industry, and the existing bus companies on paper. In practice, they had to succumb to the minibus taxis because some associations operate the BRT buses now, while others operate as feeders. The conversion process required capacity building and genuine efforts to reform the industry. The implementation of the Public Transport Strategy of 2007 remains severly sketchy, incomplete and clouded in mores, rather than strategic prescripts.

BRT, Uber and “formalisation” are logics coming from abroad as welcomed developments, like ships at our shores bringing mirrors to trade for precious metals and stones. Swapping what we have for meaningless objects that benefit the few, while the masses stand to suffer when things fall apart. It is a slipperly slope from here because our technology, the original demand responsive transport has reminds Europe and the United States of how Jitneys (minibuses) used to fill their streets before black-cabs branded the cities.

What Africans are raised in, seems to be taught back as primitive, savage, and crude in one word—while it was analysed, labelled, GIS modelled and appreciated as Paratransit in 1996 already by Charles Kunaka. More recently books around and about informal transport in Africa have emerged with some focusing on “formalisation” while others rightly argue that it is more about regulation and policy implementation. In SA, it seems we will continue to undervalue this controversial industry until it is reintroduced to us on a boat with all the bells and whistles. Starting from scratch every two decades because the industry is in the arena formal after all.

Hey, thank you for reading! Oh, this article is a background note to a longer, more verbose article on Fin24. Read it now, or wait till it gets here.

Here’s a link to the full article.

4 thoughts on “#228 The fabricated formalisation of the taxi industry”

  1. Hi
    Do the drivers of the taxis enjoy benefits like paid holidays, having an ombudsman available to regulate working conditions?
    Do they have insurance on the passengers in the vehicles, for physical damages, or loss of income, if involved in an accident?
    Does a device track the movements of the taxis, ensuring that they obey the speed regulations, or travelling their licenced routes?
    Has any frequent check been implemented for testing roadworthiness of the vehicles?

    Many taxis do not display their association, nor routes they are driving… is there legislation ensuring that they identify themselves as taxis?


    1. Hi, interesting questions, but I’ll be brief.
      1) No, but on paper they should.
      2) Long distance operators predominantly, but the RAF is crucial here. No ticket no certificate.
      3) You know the answer.
      4) and 5) It is region and association specific.


  2. Hi Ofentse many of your thoughts and references are true though confusion about formal and informal persists, it is not necessarily about its formality, it starts from acknowledging that public sector has pushed away its responsibility to be in control of providing public service. Despite several regulatory requirements the service itself remains greatly not controlled and monitored by an authority. Perhaps not much wrong with it as the service delivers to great degree regardless of a level of service considerations. But when a call for the government subsidy come to the table the confusion resurfaces. in majority of urban areas the low capacity mode would not be feasible for subsidy if the subsidy is to be provided through service providers. the user targeting subsidy could sound as rather fair option may not be easily implementable in the near future. There are several fundamental pros and cons to be considered of any approach and its up to the society to decide which ones carry more weight in terms of any planning considerations. In absence of any action the industry will carry on providing an essential service to public and be perceived and accepted as efficient as they have been.


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