Perhaps only as outsiders is it possible to grasp the positive features of the SA taxi system, say Alexander Hazen and Sabine Siller.
Johannesburg - To Europeans, the initial perception of the minibus taxi service in South Africa is similar to the one spread throughout the country: dangerous, uncomfortable and inefficient.
As two university students from Milan researching this industry, we decided that the first step was to get into one of these, apparently scary, fully packed minivans.
We approached the Bree Street taxi rank in Joburg’s CBD with trepidation.
Ignorantly, we felt like the typical tourists who adventurously seek an African experience.
We soon realised, however, that the taxi industry means much more than a simple transfer of commuters. Taxi ranks are real business hubs, where a diverse combination of cultures, languages and ethnicities blend.
And it is exactly this that caught our interest and brought us here.
This highly unappreciated industry is a fascinating expression of African entrepreneurship that has evolved into an industry on which more than 15 million people rely, every day.
After talking to several drivers, we began to see a different perspective and realised that probably most people misunderstand the industry’s chaotic nature.
Taxi drivers are popularly perceived as reckless and rude-mannered. However, the reason behind their bad reputation is embedded in the business structure.
There is a vicious cycle that shapes the nature of the service. Forced to work long hours, and incentivised with high-revenue targets from taxi owners from whom they rent the vehicles, drivers are constantly in a rush and always on the lookout for shortcuts to make an extra buck.
When asked: “Do you like being a taxi driver?” most drivers admit: “No, I don’t like it. I have to work from 4.30am till 9pm, I earn little money, and on top of that people hate us and treat us like dogs!”
Drivers complain that demanding passengers often vent their frustration on drivers.
“One passenger is in a hurry and pushes you to rush, but another feels unsafe and complains. In the end, it’s always our fault.”
To make matters worse, none of these taxi drivers are formally employed, meaning no job security, no payslip, no insurance, no access to finance, and therefore no stable career path to the middle class.
Clearly not all drivers are saints, but empathy towards these stressed-out operators would do no harm.
We have learned about campaigns that, by simply putting a smiling picture and name of the driver on a taxi’s dashboard, greatly improve passenger opinions and driver relations.
Maybe with more effort from both sides, a more pleasant environment can be created, and positively affect service and the industry’s reputation. After all, many drivers are also skilled professionals. Their driving style might be aggressive, but their ability to squeeze through traffic is impressive.
Clearly the taxi industry and taxi drivers are misunderstood and unappreciated by many South Africans.
Perhaps only as outsiders is it possible for us to grasp the positive features of the South African taxi system.
Growing up in Europe, we are used to small, comfortable but expensive taxis. What South African taxis lack in comfort and privacy, they make up in affordability and convenience.
Taxi rides in Europe are pricey and buses leave you quite far from your final destination. Minibus taxis seem to offer a brilliant compromise.
By focusing only on the problems in the industry, without considering all its positive aspects, the government indeed seems to have turned its back at the minibus taxi industry.
The public transport strategy that the cabinet approved back in March 2007 described two pillars.
The first pillar foresaw “modal upgrading”, through the introduction of significant improvements in current public transport services.
The second envisaged “high-quality integration of the existing public transportation networks”.
While over the years Gautrain and Rea Vaya benefited from significant investments, the minibus taxi sector has not received any governmental subsidy to improve it.
The ultimate goal, ideally, would be to formalise the minibus taxi industry, but this would happen through its participation in Rea Vaya.
Displaced taxi drivers will be offered employment and taxi operators will be eligible for shareholdings in the bus operating companies.
In the long run, this could seriously undermine the minibus service. However, so far, these capital-intensive infrastructure projects do not seem to be able to offer an equally efficient and cost-effective solution.
It is interesting to compare how countries in different developmental phases have to deal with their unique transport challenges.
In Europe, and Italy in particular, the situation seems upside-down. “We don’t need taxis in Italy, you all have cars,” was the reaction we got from many people.
Exactly, we all have cars!
As every household possesses on average two vehicles, traffic congestion and pollution have been an increasing problem.
For this reason, the municipalities of Italy’s largest cities are desperately fighting to reduce the number of privately owned cars. New forms of public transportation, such as car sharing, are being strongly encouraged.
So are we sure that eliminating the 200 000 strong taxi industry would be the most efficient solution for South Africa’s transport industry?
Maybe a better approach could be to leverage the positive aspects of the taxi industry and, instead of aiming at dismantling it, support the institutions that are making efforts to improve its safety, accessibility and efficiency.
We believe the taxi industry is a vital and vibrant part of the South African economy and people’s lives.
* Part 2 of this series next week
** Alexander Hazen and Sabine Siller are students from Bocconi University in Milan, Italy. They are doing fieldwork in South Africa as part of a research project into promoting entrepreneurship in Africa’s taxi industry. See www.hakunamatatu.com
*** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.