Durban Metro Police officers were thin on the ground on the streets of the city yesterday after apparently being instructed to go easy on taxi drivers in the wake of last week’s violent taxi strike.
Five officers, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told The Mercury that patrols received instructions on two-way radio at about 6am yesterday to not stop or fine taxis until further notice.
Metro police spokesman Eugene Msomi denied that officers had been instructed to lay off traffic violations by taxis, but confirmed that members had been advised to exercise caution following the recent violence and to avoid provoking taxi drivers.
Nevertheless, metro police officers said large numbers of their colleagues simply stayed off the streets for most of the day in protest against what some of them took to be an instruction to overlook taxi traffic violations.
Some members also expressed fears for their personal safety, noting that not all metro police members were provided with firearms or even pepper-spray cans.
The latest taxi strike, which was suspended on Sunday pending further talks with city officials, resulted in extensive damage to private and public property, and 46 taxi drivers and operators have been charged with public violence.
Large numbers of drivers already have unpaid fines. According to Msomi, the city is owed a total of about R1.3 billion in unpaid fines from taxi drivers and other motorists.
Sources within the metro police said many officers remained at their stations, while others went home early after apparently being instructed not to target taxi drivers.
They said that, as a result, many officers decided to stay off the streets in protest.
On Sunday, KZN Transport Alliance chairman Eugene Hadebe threatened that any metro officers seen “harassing” taxi drivers would be severely dealt with by taxi owners. Following his threats, the officers said an instruction was issued that they should not fine or stop any taxi in the city. They said the instruction came from police deputy head Steve Middleton, and metro police head Eugene Nzama.
NO ROADBLOCKS OR FINES
“We received the instruction on our two-way radios at about 6am, which said that members should not conduct roadblocks or issue fines against taxis until further notice. Right now, we are not doing anything,” one officer said.
Another officer said this had angered officers, who questioned whether their bosses were “giving in” to the threats.
“After getting this instruction, we decided to return to our police stations where we just sat and did nothing. Others even went home early. If they tell us not to fine taxis, they might as well tell us not to fine any offending motorists.
“Nzama has been meeting union leaders where he said that police should use their discretion when issuing fines. But now he has insisted that we should overlook offending taxi drivers since tension is high,” said another officer.
There were also no metro police patrols visible along Anton Lembede and Dr Pixley KaSeme streets, and between Berea and the Point when The Mercury drove through these areas yesterday.
However, some SAPS vehicles were parked at various taxi ranks.
Msomi denied that metro police management had instructed officers not to enforce the law against taxis. But he said the officers were requested to be cautious and to avoid provoking taxi operators.
“Instructing police officers not to execute their duties would be illegal. It was a normal working day for metro police officers except that they were warned to be careful of things that might start violence,” he said. -The Mercury