247 | Is the taxi industry really informal?

Do you believe that the taxi industry is an unregulated, “informal” industry—disorganised, unstable, and chaotically driven by dangerous men? Or do you believe that the industry is formally controlled by associations and regulations—ripe for transformation, as drivers are under pressure to make the day’s quota, while passengers are not satisfied with the service? 

These two narratives are among the many voices of frustrated commuters; hopeful taxi industry players; and are inputs in the private sectors’ approaches for how to interact with the industry. Changing public perception is one thing, and conscientizing policy is another. If the taxi industry is to be transformed a more honest narrative seems to rest beyond its formality, and closer to its essence. 

Rising from the ashes

“The commuting conundrum is certainly over”—ripples as the last note to the hit songs about the taxi industry as we know it. Yet, being stuck in the past is not by chance, it is merely an effort to confront the consequences of choices made then, in the now. Hence the initial arguments presented in the discussion documents curve through the 1996 National Taxi Task Team’s (NTTT) dated ideals, refreshed with the South African National Taxi Council’s (SANTACO) model for reform: the TR3 2020, crafted in 2010 as an independent path to a new legacy. 

The 90’s were an ambitious period for South Africa: burgeoning highway infrastructure projects; the urge to transform freight rail into Transnet Ltd.; and plans to recapitalise Metrorail (before it was Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa). Bus transport contracts were lost in translation, stuck in the interim contracts (authorisations), which made them susceptible to high allocations regimes and poor service designs unresponsive to sprawling townships. At the forefront was the minibus taxi industry, carrying an ever-increasing share of the public transport market, filling the gaps between poor planning for where people lived, worked and enjoyed their lives. 

The NTTT’s 1996 recommendations informed the crafting of legislation that would include the minibus taxi industry in land transport policy, as per the agreements held in those meetings. In terms of representation, standing like a statue in many industry veterans’ memories was the formation of SANTACO; its constitution; and recognition by the National Department of Transport. At a policy level, taxi associations, operating permits and other factors were then prescribed in the National Land Transport Transition Act published in 2000. The Act was like a vehicle, transporting the taxi industry from a largely political-economic machine of capital accumulation—black wealth—into structures that can interface internally and externally with municipalities and private sector. However, this transition left change to chance—unmanaged and explosively violent. The blood trails of failing, fallen, and rising, big men are drawn out between the “economics of masculity” embedded in the industry’s origins to the modern hitmen describing their interpretation of corporate espionage. The seeds of “informality” were not planted here, but the narrative was printed en-mass, just as it is imprinted today. 

Lapsing into a Lekgotla

A Lekgotla is a convenient way to solicit quick and focused decisions, consider the one by former Transport Minister Jeff Radebe hosted in 2006—it was all encompassing. This year marks another signal of change hopping between seats of power. With options already crafted, stakeholders are somewhat like passengers headed to a Lekgotla—at least they are invited to direct the route. This may create a more manageable process of engagement, although the narrative is dominated by an either demeaning or empowering flavour of “informality”—an ancient trigger finger. Is the driver looking ahead or trapped in the rear-view mirror, barely self-reflecting? 

A decade would pass between the chaos of the 90’s and the consolidation in the 2000s. Depending on the municipality in question, there seems to be a tendency to remain in the state of transition. Meanwhile the Department of Transport published the ‘Public Transport Strategy of 2007’, an old wound which was an exclusive plan for public transport in SA’s cities through Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), for the sake of this article. This was a complicated situation: the BRT aimed to capture routes operated by minibus taxi operators, and convert operators along these routes into cooperatives—buying them out, and/or pulling them into the operation as Transit Operating Companies. Thus, on one hand it was an inclusive step to transform the existing taxi owners into viable bus operators, but it also excluded the industry because it ignored the minibus vehicle itself as solution in some circumstances. (It was only recently that the policy accommodated minibus taxis and non-motorised transport.)

By 2009, the National Land Transport Act was published. This is the legislation crafted to specifically regulate the industry through a Provincial Regulatory Entity (PRE) in terms of the requirements for entering the market; and the extent to which there is space to enter a route and retain its viability for other operators. In this Act, municipalities have the responsibility of assessing the market conditions of the taxi industry in their jurisdiction through Integrated Transport Plans (ITPs). As a result, on paper the allocation of permits to enter into the market are informed by the Operating Licence in the ITPs developed at municipal level; and the permits issued at provincial level. 

In 2010, SANTACO responded to this shift in government policy by not only latching on to the Taxi Recapitalisation Programme, but also through pursuing a strategic shift toward changing its organisational structure; tapping into its value chain through vertical and horizontal shifts; among other strategies in their TR3 2020. The strategy echoes some of the proposals presented in the most recent discussion documents. 

Former Minister Dipuo Pieters published guidelines for Integrated Transport Planning in 2016 in order to make it easier for municipal officials to get the right information about the transport sector in their area. 

Interestingly, the conditions for having an Operating Licence are similar to the conditions that were attached to the ex-gracia R 1.35bn, but the Transport Ministry said that there are 137 000 legal taxis with Operating Licences, and 113 000 illegal taxis operating with receipts of application. Why “formalise” something that is formally recognised, even differentiated by words like legal and illegal? Or better yet, how do 113 000 minibus taxis operate illegally within municipalities that have a policy mandate to coordinate, improve and develop public transport in their jurisdiction? Interestingly, the current format of the Lekgotla(s) aims to craft a strategic path for the entire industry—particularly through the leading national structures: SANTACO and the National Taxi Alliance. It may be hoped that some illegal operators will join the legal side of the market.

Whereas, many of the ground level issues seem to be related to a transition trap with associations lost in poorly enforced clusters of policies for two decades. Of course, there are other forces, as noted in the Gauteng Provincial Inquiry into Taxi Violence, and matters arising from the Competition Commission’s Market Inquiry on Public Passenger Transport. Take note of how local level problems are administered provincially, while local municipalities (outside of the metros) appear unhinged from their public transport functions. These uncoordinated efforts, while well-intentioned only echo a past we fell for since the advent of colonial interference. 

Falling for the informality trap

The minibus taxi industry is driven by individuals who own their means of production—their vehicles—and they transport the working classes. Some are employed by owners of vehicles, while others are part of the industry’s value chain. The rapid growth in the demand for minibus taxi vehicles watered the growth of Toyota’s Ses’filikile assembly plant through the People Carrier Automotive Investment Scheme by the Department of Trade, Industry and Competition. 

Commercial entities have noticed the importance of the industry, and thus locate their retail and billboards near or at taxi ranks—knowing very well what the value of these locations are. Some owners have vehicles coated in advertisements for all to see along the entire route, rolling like a film on tar. The industry has gone from bank to bank in search of financial instruments to enable easier vehicle procurement, up until SA Taxi Finance and Bridge Taxi Finance emerged as entities that drive access to vehicles. Finally, the Transport Education and Training Authority (TETA) has dedicated an entire arm specifically for the skills development and training of stakeholders, operators and owners within the taxi industry. 

Why could the state, media and general public believe that the taxi industry is informal, when it is regulated by policy and is legitimately recognised at industrial and commercial levels? Perhaps it is because the Transport Ministry has perpetually stated the need to “formalise”; or it is because some circles in the industry are rife with violence and criminality; or it is because that is the language we’ve inherited and use to describe our own homegrown services. Words like “informal” hide the capital accumulating, asset-owning black bourgeoisie (as Mooeltsi Mbeki once put it), behind the curtains of crime, violence, cartels and lawlessness. 

Escaping scarred memories

The language of referring to the taxi industry as an informal industry, or a sector in need of formalisation reminds me of the BPC-SASO Trial of Steve Biko in 1976, where he stood to speak of the black condition. What he describes as the external conditions of life (i.e. oppression), is the first force, but of interest is the second force: 

“a certain state of alienation, he rejects himself, precisely because he attaches the meaning of white to all that is good, in other words he associates good and equates good with white”.


In this sense, anything inherently non-white would be inferior, and upon the proliferation of the minibus taxi industry after 1977, its informal status stuck to it for 43 years—serving many generations of families, but also scarring many lives. 

It reminds me of Chabani Manganyi’s argument in Making StrangeHe describes how the historical psychological analysis of Africans purport through pseudo-science a childlike; “innately inferior”; “dangerous sexually and as a violent being” were stirred to concoct separate education, systems and societies based on race. This racial classification as an input into spatial form is something Susan Parnell documents eloquently. This same line of classifying the scheduled subsidised bus transport as formal, and claiming that a home-grown innovation is informal offers some scarring tissue in the fabric of how black capital accumulation is treated (and how it treats itself). The informality trap is a dark one, with an intoxicating allure to simplify for the sake clarity—instead it saps into a memory that does not reflect the multiple generations on a minibus today.

These lenses remind me of the ‘savage’ in Totem and Taboo, trading gold for a mirror, just as Jitneys roamed the streets of London, and ‘paratransit’ is gaining interest as the future of mobility in the US. Jitneys or paratransit, are formal terms referring to an entire field of research in transport, an area where new policies and innovations are emerging. Will the industry and the state both hold the short end of the stick, or will they consciously steer the industry to own its memory?

Thank you for reading. This article is a follow-up of No. 228 titled: ‘The fabricated formalisation of the taxi industry‘, and was originally published on Fin24 on the 22 September 2020.

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