274 | How infrastructure changes, economic regulation and safe spaces confront taxi violence

Violence is concerning. The truth is however, that we have not really delved deeply into what “violence” really is. 

Is the siege of traffic, resurfacing on urban roads a reminder that our major cities steal more than 20% of road users travel time from them? Or is it the fact that we face more than 1 million road traffic incidents per year with 15 000 fatalities each cycle. 

35% of those deaths involve pedestrians, brutally dissected by the car culture premised upon the escape from coffins on wheelsso called “public transport” in the form of minibus taxis . 

When we really get to talk about violence in terms of what it actually is, it is not as simple as pointing at the recent conflict in the Western Cape, or threats in Pinetown, or looking toward the Gauteng Commission of Inquiry into Taxi Violence, nor Mpumalanga or KwaZulu Natal over the years. No.

For the price of a life, it is barely easy as binge watching the Inkabi’s (assassins in the minibus taxi industry) tell their stories. 

State officials, public tenders, and various other vested interests navigate the landscape, sometimes landing at taxi ranks on special assignments

What taxi associations already know as the underlying issues propelling the most obvious forms of violence are well established throughout the network of approximately 133 000 legal operators, and the 100 000 unregistered (illegal operators). 

The violence of neglect

In reality, the violence is more acute than this. Whether we start from the historic hostels, or the modern taxi families, one common thread is capital and extracting as much of it as possible. 

Working conditions giving rise to dangerous behaviour

The evidence about minibus taxi driver working conditions is presenting a complex network of results. Recent evidence from Dr Lee Randal not only describes our transportation system as crashogenic, but highlights how minibus taxi drivers only responding to their working conditions to survive. It might even get more complex where doormen and other supervisory roles are part of the syndicate managing the taxi ranks, as one may notice in some West African cities. The pressure to pay Unions or Syndicatists in West African countries a subscription to use the transport facilities tell a story of how deep these narratives are.

One study finds that most drivers in Rustenburg, a city in South Africa, work for somewhere between 10 to 12 hours per day (no clear indication of idle time, breaks etc.) and make decisions about when to stop working based on the combined effect of hours worked, revenue generated and time of day, as noted below:

“Neither accumulated revenues (p-value = 0.04, but with hardly any effect until a large amount of revenues) nor hours worked (p-value = 0.47) seem to really matter once the hourly effects are considered. This is probably also due to the fact that high revenues, many hours worked, and an evening hour will almost always fall together. It can be concluded that time is the relevant variable a driver looks at when deciding whether to add another trip or not”.

A stochastic prediction of minibus taxi driver behaviour in South Africa, Jan SchlüterManuel FrewerLeif Sörensen & Justin Coetzee 

This echoes the work of the International Labour Organisation in 2003, where it raised a myriad of questions and hopes of labour unionisation in the minibus taxi industry. What Jane Barrett and colleagues did not anticipate was the central role the taxi associations would play as an intermediary- or hybrid union or perhaps administrator, if not custodian of the market. This was instituted by the National Land Transport Transition Act, in particular.

On the other hand, there is an important opportunity to intervene without doing more than taking serious note of how changes in the built environment can communicate a sense of value.

Infrastructure could change the behaviour

Especially in circumstances where the driver does not own the vehicle, this might expresses itself in speeding, overloading, and recklessness. 

Chasing the next passenger, skipping traffic lights to compensate for a lack of priority treatment, or as De Beer and Venter noted in 2019 and 2021, improving the infrastructure at intersections in a manner that prioritises minibus taxis is a more affordable and effective intervention.

Fowkes and others from WITS explore another option: maybe allowing minibus taxis to share dedicated bus lanes with Bus Rapid Transit systems could work, but this too will come with timetabling risks, and traffic risks (shockwaves need to be estimated).

Extracted from De Beer and Venter (2021), presented at the Southern African Transport Conference (SATC)

Lagging economic regulation

Dr. Mathetha Mokonyama from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, Ofentse Mokwena – Transport Economist, and Jacob Mamabolo, Gauteng Transport MEC unpack whether regulating the taxi industry will quell the violence. Tune into Newzroom Afrika, DSTV channel 405 for more details.

The violence expresses itself in the form of lagging economic regulation of the industry in a manner that reflects strategies that ensure (a) sustainable earnings for the market (drivers and owners); and (b) affordable, effective and efficient services for the passengers. This not only puts the owner-driver market at risk as there is a rising number of vehicles competing for passengers that may not be increasing at the same rate. 

A smaller pie for each player, and therefore a more dangerous environment with each additional loss due to backdoor entries. The backdoor is not the only contributor. Front door entrants faced with municipalities that do not have accurate data, or provinces that do not receive feedback from municipalities tend to make inaccurate decisions– these were among the findings of the Inquiry into Taxi Violence in Gauteng

Policy risks for undefined issues in practice

Knowing this, our legislation does not reflect terms such as “over-saturation”, or “encroachment” although it is common knowledge that these issues are major contributors to the visible expressions of violence. 

Whereas, the lack of proactive interventions and innovative policy making leaves a vacuum for self-defeating regulatory behaviour to take hold of popular transport in South Africa. 

So yes, violence is expressed in the road fatalities, in the working conditions, in the lagging economic regulation, but it manifests itself in the form of “guns” and “war”. MEC Jacob Mamabolo, in the interview above describes taxi violence as both a “culture of violence”, and “an accumulation of a problem over many years”.

With this 50 year strong foundation for a service which transports over 60% of the commuter market, it offers a critical and stable service to the public. 

Yet it is also faced with deeply rooted complexities which need both mutual understanding and much needed regulatory enforcement—both of which can be guided by the state, and within the industry. 

Dr Mokonyama highlights how there is a lag and a lack of coordination within law enforcement, and he cites the extent to which programmes directed at redressing “crime ecosystems” are underresourced relative to the size of the industries, people, and networks involved.  

Searching for the sources of “violence”

A broader assessment of where taxi-violence emirates from reveals three interrelated forces, namely: structural (institution based), work related (productivity based), and commercial (revenue based). These three sources, among others, drive various decisions and motivate unique behaviours.

However, was is clear from the literature presented earlier is that infrastructure interventions can drastically improve both the road safety and productivity aspects of the service. These interventions are a precursor to Regiland Kgwedi’s initial offering a few years ago, that dedicated lanes for the minibus taxis, and public transport in general are key. In fact he highlights two other contributing factors, one being an massive institutional void (he referred to as political in nature) and the manner in which the cumulative lack of significant subsidisation in the minibus taxi services constitutes a market failure– if not economic sabotage in practice.

Furthermore, working conditions with high time pressures to produce high revenues, either result in long operating hours and potentially contribute to the crashogenic fabric of the minibus taxi services. As a result, the importance of tapping into the labour regulatory environment will be just as crucial.

I would not be surprised if the biggest transformation of the popular minibus taxi service is not based on profoundly new technology, but instead innovative partnerships and a large scale buy-in from the market. 

Some interventions could be about making neighbourhoods safer, others could focus on challenging road infrastructure and public space resources toward queue-skipping infrastructure and technology on main roads.

The irony is that, both of these are happening, but they are not managed or coordinated in a manner that yields the best result to achieve safety, commercial and regulatory goals. What we need urgently, is a bundle of practical solutions on the ground, I’ve shared them here for free, and they are easy to implement because most stakeholders involved stand to benefit.

Thank you for reading.

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