Lifting lid on 'mafia' taxi industry

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Copy of nt strike Independent Newspapers File photo of a taxi protest on the N2.

The lucrative Kwa-Zulu-Natal taxi industry, estimated to be worth billions, has been likened to a Mafia operation with unscrupulous taxi bosses and cold-blooded hired assassins.

Following the recent murder of a taxi boss in Folweni – one of hundreds over the past three decades – a Sunday Tribune investigation has lifted the lid on the inner workings of the notoriously violent industry which is responsible for transporting 65 percent of the province’s commuters.

Through a series of interviews with taxi owners, association chairmen, drivers, government consultants and impeccable industry insiders familiar with the industry’s own set of laws, our probe has uncovered that:

- Some taxi associations charge joining fees of up to R120 000 per taxi, with daily rank levies and “protection fees” ranging from R50 to R150 a vehicle. There is often little or no accountability over the use of this money, giving rise to conflicts which often result in execution style killings.

- Operators who refuse to pay protection fees almost certainly have their taxis grounded, leading to grievances which may prompt retribution;

- Most transactions are carried out in cash, with some of it kept in car boots; and

- The SA Revenue Service (Sars) does not know how much revenue it loses each year from operators who do not pay income tax.

TAX FREE CASH

“The cash element makes it very attractive. The money is tax free. And these guys will do anything to keep things the way they are,” said a Department of Transport consultant who has done extensive research into the inner workings of the industry.

“If you are a chairman, treasurer and secretary you wield a lot of power, but you’re in the line of fire. If you’re an operator and you ask too many questions, you get dealt with quickly,” he said, speaking anonymously.

KwaZulu-Natal violence monitor Mary de Haas believes the taxi industry derives its power from its own mafia type activities, from its close relationship with many police officers and the history of poor regulation and failure of the police to implement the law.

WHERE’S THE LAW?

“In the early 1990s I was told by credible police sources that people like former askaris were running taxis. That the industry remains so powerful after 18 years of democratic rule boils down to inadequate regulation and, especially, an almost total lack of law enforcement. Look at the type of traffic violations taxis get away with, and the fact that fines are not even collected. It is not difficult to make owners responsible for paying fines, but the will seems lacking,” De Haas said.

Department of Transport spokesman Kwanele Ncalane said cases involving hit men had, “proven to be very difficult, more than any other crime.”

“With political killings you find that suspects in almost all cases get arrested. But with hit men, people are hired to do the job and then they disappear.

NO ACCOUNTABILITY

“The biggest challenge is, you have money flowing that is unaccounted for. You find powerful people who control resources in an association. You hear some monies are for ‘looking after the work’, yet there is no accountability. As soon as the money is unaccounted for, they can use it to do their own things.

“In Mandeni, we found a taxi association with a constitution, they said the chairman collects money yet he doesn’t say what that money has done. That is a big problem.”

Ncalane said the lack of vetting systems when employing security guards contributed to the problem.

“Some of these security companies aren’t even registered. Others even tell you that, ‘this is a known hit man,’ but you find them working for security companies.

“We do agree the constitution gives people the right to protect themselves and their property, but our question is you find these are the same people being implicated in killing others. In some cases you find taxi associations even hiring guns for these people to carry out assassinations.”

De Haas pointed out that there was not nearly enough control over the security used by taxi people, adding that this was a consequence of the private security industry’s own weak regulation.”

NO ACCURATE FIGURES

The police do not keep specific statistics of taxi related killings, but spokesman Colonel Vincent Mdunge said they “have the upper hand” over izinkabi (assassins), praising the work of the provincial Taxi Violence Task Team headed by Col Nyama Sithole.

Sithole replaced Supt Zethembe Chonco, who was killed during an ambush while transporting awaiting trial prisoners in KwaMaphumulo near KwaDukuza in 2008.

Mdunge would not reveal the size of the taxi task team or elaborate on its strategy, citing “operational reasons.”

Mdunge said that about 60 to 70 percent of taxi-related cases had been solved, 20 percent were pending finalisation and about 10 percent remained unsolved.

“We are winning the war. Our informer network is quite good, we have the upper hand. A lot of hit men are serving life terms.”

However, chairman of the South African National Taxi Coalition (Santaco) Bheki Mbambo is not so convinced.

“(The police) don’t have the full picture,” Mbambo said.

“The number of people who have died, is higher than those arrested.

“It shows an insufficient understanding of the industry on the part of the police.

MURDERS HAPPEN DAILY

“Taxi related killings happen almost daily. A lot of them don’t reach the media.

“In one association in Mpumalanga township, from 2009 up until now 32 people have died. It’s like a war zone.”

Mbambo said the government needed to “put its heart” into the industry and talk to those involved about the correct regulation strategy, when making decisions in general.

He said the organisation rejected the presence of hit men in the industry. “We have no place for people like that.”

He said people who had knowledge of hitmen had a duty to report them to the police, who themselves needed to understand the industry better.

It was a “disgrace”, Mbambo said, that an industry central to the country’s mobility was left out in the cold, receiving no government subsidies.

Four alleged hit men were arrested in two separate incidents by members of the task team.

Mdunge said the police raided the house of a man who had been paid R13 000 to hit a prominent Eshowe taxi owner, Siyabonga Mbonambi.

The hit was to take place on the same evening on which it was foiled.

The man who had paid for it was also arrested and the would-be hit men were facing charges of conspiracy to commit murder.

Officers also arrested two other suspects in Mbumbulu, who were linked to taxi related murders in Isipingo and Folweni.

The suspects, Mdunge said, were also linked to the murder of two taxi association security guards in the area. -Sunday Tribune

THE FACTS:

- There are 246 taxi associations in KwaZulu-Natal, with 13 167 members with 39 167 vehicles.

- There are 17 708 vehicles with permits and 21 459 vehicles without permits operating 2 179 routes.

- Durban alone has 107 taxi associations with 5271 members, 8771 vehicles using 648 routes.

- Out of 11 KZN districts, Pietermaritzburg is second to Durban with 43 taxi associations, with 1774 members and 1650 vehicles controlling 204 routes.

- The most lucrative routes are Durban to Johannesburg and any route to Durban Intra-provincial.

- 14 million people use taxi services every day.

- 200 000 minibus taxis were officially registered in 2006.

- 7 is the average number of taxis per owner.

- 8000 are the average monthly kilometres covered by a taxi.

- 3161 is the average number of passengers transported monthly by a minibus taxi.

- 65 minutes is the average time in a day a passenger spends on a taxi.

- 2.3 is the number of taxi trips a passenger travels a day.



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