Durban - The Pinetown CBD came to a standstill on Wednesday when hundreds of taxi drivers squared off with police in a battle which lasted several hours.
The drama started at 8.30am when metro police set up a roadblock near the taxi rank in Anderson Road. Angry taxi drivers demanded metro police halt the operation because they were “tired of being harassed”.
An argument ensued, which led to the violent stand-off.
Tension between police and the protesters was clearly evident when The Mercury arrived at the scene on the corner of Anderson and Old Main roads.
According to the drivers, the stand-off turned violent when one of the protesters was shot by a metro policeman.
“We don’t understand why they shot him,” said an operator who asked to be identified only as “Mvelase”.
“We are not criminals. We are just trying to feed our families. We are tired of being abused by metro police,” he said.
Police and taxi operators pleaded with the drivers to disperse over a loudhailer but the increasingly agitated crowd refused to back down. A police water cannon and a Nyala were called in, with the crowd given “five minutes to disperse”.
When they failed to move away, the water cannon sprayed the crowd while policemen fired rubber bullets, pepper spray and teargas. The fleeing crowd, in turn, hurled stones and burned tyres.
Police spokesman Thulani Zwane said police were investigating a case of attempted murder and public violence.
“It is alleged that two males were shot at during the conflict. They were taken to hospitals,” he said. No arrest had been made on Wednesday.
In the aftermath of the battle, women and children in the congested rank could be seen choking and coughing from inhaling teargas.
Cynthia Zuma, grandmother of 11-month-old Melokuhle Khayane, said they were caught in the middle of the storm.
“Why are the community being involved in all of this? We have nothing to do with it,” she said.
KZN SA National Taxi Council (Santaco) chairman, Bheki Mbambo, said: “We have pleaded with them to stop because innocent people are being caught up in this unnecessarily. We asked to meet and discuss our grievances but they don’t want to accept that.”
Metro Police spokesman Eugene Msomi said: “We were conducting day-to-day inspection of vehicles, checking roadworthiness, checking compliancy; all that we normally do. Some people got agitated and then they tried to protest in front of the roadblock, telling the police they must move.”
He said the group grew and “other people” joined in.
Msomi said the person who was shot allegedly tried to grab an officer’s firearm and the policeman retaliated, shooting him.
“The process of engagement has already begun. These matters are being dealt with at the highest office in city hall - the mayor and the city manager are involved.”
He said the relationship between metro police and the operators was “good” but the problem was that information did not filter down to the drivers.
“They get frustrated because they get warrants, they get arrested and obviously with the intervention now, there is direct dialogue with the drivers,” he said.
KwaZulu-Natal Emergency Medical Services (EMS) spokesman Robert McKenzie said paramedics treated numerous patients, including three children, for various conditions.
He said EMS set up a central holding area, away from the confrontations. “Several patients were treated and then released, while 12 patients were transported to medical institutions, including the Pinetown clinic, St Mary’s and RK Khan hospitals.”
Traffic was affected from 8.30am until about 3pm.