IMPOUNDED: Municipalities’ slow issue of permits is preventing drivers from working and should be dealt with accordingly by the government, says the writer. Picture: Armand Hough/African News Agency (ANA)
For the past couple of months, I have been following the recent proposed amendments to the National Land Transport Act (NLTA), which includes an amendment that will see severe financial penalties imposed on any e-hailing operators whose drivers are found to be operating without legal permits from their local municipality.  

At face value, this proposed amendment appears appropriate, given that it would serve to prevent or limit illegal operators and enhance the safety of those making use of transport services.

The majority of tourists who visit South Africa use Uber, a global brand accepted as an essential service if you seek to promote tourism at a destination.

However, if the government goes ahead with the implementation of the amendment without addressing the problems being experienced by ride-sharing companies like Uber SA and their drivers, the move may have a negative impact on tourism across the country.

The main issue is not the need to have permits; it is fact that the permit issuance systems and processes of many of South Africa’s major municipalities are essentially broken, so drivers cannot get the permits they need timeously, if at all. It is public knowledge that municipalities are in a state of crisis, and that they are unable to meet their legislated mandate.

By doing a simple search you would notice that Uber has had first-hand experience of this broken and dysfunctional permit-issuing system in Cape Town. This is a prime example of the disastrous negative impact the system is having on the livelihoods of e-hailing drivers, not to mention the transport options of visitors to the city.

While the vast majority of drivers in Cape Town have applied for operating licences, the issuing of these permits is being delayed by a non-functioning system and a lack of resources - and the problem is worsening as the backlog of applications steadily grows.

Instead, these drivers are expected to simply not work, often for many months, until they receive the required permit. As a result, many are forced to operate with only their receipt, and then fall victim to vehicle impoundments by the very city that is unable to provide them with the permit they need to operate.

In the past two-and-a-half years, literally hundreds of e-hailing drivers’ vehicles have been impounded. From what I can see, it is costing Uber in the long run, as these drivers are essentially soft targets for a city that seems intent on making it impossible for them to earn a living.

Despite these very lengthy delays, which are entirely the fault of the municipalities concerned, local transport authorities refuse to allow drivers to operate if they cannot show their permit application receipts.

For the majority of drivers in Cape Town and across the country, driving for e-hailing services is their main, or only, source of income. Many of these drivers are therefore forced to operate without the required permits and, as a result, many end up having their vehicles impounded by the very authorities that are not able to provide them with the permits they need.

Given the city’s supposed commitment to attracting investment and creating employment opportunities, the City of Cape Town’s deeds stand in very stark contrast to its words.

And if the Transport Ministry does not address this quickly, the negative effects will almost certainly be felt across the tourism industry.

And it’s not just Cape Town’s tourism that could suffer. Ride-sharing and e-hailing are a preferred form of public transport for very large numbers of international tourists visiting all parts of South Africa. So, if the combination of failed permit systems and unfair, punitive legislation causes a massive decline in availability of these transport providers, it will only be a matter of time before tourist numbers to all major centres follow suit.

This is obviously a highly undesirable scenario, and one that can easily be avoided by swift action from the National Transport Ministry. In fact, the minister has a unique opportunity to leverage the proposed NLTA amendments to catalyse remedial action by municipalities to get their permit-issuance systems in good working order.

This can be achieved by imposing deadlines on these local authorities to provide evidence that they have effectively addressed the challenges they have long faced with their permit systems, provided the required resources to implement and manage those systems, and successfully and significantly reduced their permit application backlogs by issuing permits to those drivers who have a valid receipt of application.

By ensuring these steps are taken before the implementation of the NLTA amendments, the Transport Ministry will demonstrate its commitment to a fair, equitable and a well-run transport environment for all - one that delivers on its full economic value potential to all sectors of society, but particularly South Africa’s all-important tourism industry.

The state must not legislate e-hailing as a means of reducing competition to the metered taxi industry, and stimulate unemployment as an unintended consequence. Poverty created by unemployment is the major challenge facing South Africa, e-hailing providers have done much to create opportunities for employment for thousands of our citizens.

* Unathi Sonwabile Henama is a tourism lecturer at the Tshwane University of Technology. He writes in his personal capacity.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

Cape Argus