Turf wars: lucrative taxi industry dominated by money and fear
Veteran journalist Greg Ardé tackles the internal ANC political battlefield in KwaZulu-Natal in his book War Party. It sets out to show how cadre deployment has created competing patronage networks that result in comrades killing each other for jobs and tenders. This extract from the book focuses on the role of the taxi industry in the bloodletting that goes on unabated.
“I am not afraid. I only fear God.” The taxi boss uttered these words with the solemnity of Moses himself. He was a silent type, tough with a compact body and an efficient air about him.
He was not in the least what I imagined a taxi boss would look like. On the day we met he was impeccably turned out in an expensive, pinstriped, long-sleeved shirt and smart trousers.
I met him at a plush hotel in Umhlanga, in a restaurant at the back, with no road frontage, a place he appeared to frequent. Three men with machine guns guarded one entrance and a knot of lieutenants sat at a table waiting for lunch.
He was a taxi boss with a reputation, having worked in the industry since he was 14. He owned a fleet of about 20 taxis and also had interests in a taxi security company. This protected his association’s turf and that of another, which paid him big bucks for the service.
One of his clients had been in a running battle with a rival association. It had claimed a dozen lives and left scores more injured. The mere talk of it inflamed the taxi boss. For a few minutes he seemed consumed and spat out his words in what seemed like jets of flame.
He had lost friends and trusted associates to the taxi business so the prospect of his rivals trying to take him out was obvious. But he was a disciplined man and quickly regained his composure and returned to the matter at hand - business.
“The problem with the taxi industry,” he said, “is that too many cops are involved. They own taxis or they take bribes.” He huffed.
Crooked cops were one thing, but what really riled him was other operators muscling in on his turf. “I have to feed my kids. Nobody can come here and tell me I can’t do business.”
He described his enemies as “like acid”. “They kill everything they touch.” Route dominance was down to firepower, he said. “You hire hitmen, izinkabi, from all over, but the best ones come from rural areas like Nongoma. They are professionals. Their job is to kill. They know that.” When the hits were done, the izinkabi disappeared back into the hills. The modus operandi of the dominant taxi bosses was simple: owners in every association agreed on how many vehicles, owned by whom, would run a route. Then some got greedy and accepted overtures from a big gun from outside the association. They became a silent proxy for him, slowly adding more taxis to the route. In return they shared the loot. But this is just a means to an end, he said. The long game was to get out because the market was over-traded.
Having said that, the taxi boss told me he made R25 000 a day in profit on his fleet.
“The taxi business is stupid business. It is a money-laundering business. The only reason to have taxis is to steal from Sars (the South African Revenue Service). Everyone has other businesses.”
Much the same story that the taxi boss told me in Umhlanga applies to the rest of the country. In Soweto I spoke to a taxi owner who ran a small fleet between the township and Johannesburg. It was a modest outfit that he and his brothers inherited from their dad.
When we spoke, a one-way fare was R18 and they carried 15 passengers per trip. Profit per trip was R200. Short routes like Soweto to Johannesburg are small potatoes, however. The big money is made on long-haul routes like Durban to Johannesburg. Twenty-two-seater taxis run these routes and the fares were R450 per passenger one way. The profits are massive.
“Look,” another taxi owner explained. “The income is R9900 per trip. Petrol for one trip is R1200, tolls about R250, and you pay the driver one passenger fare of R450. So R9900 less R1900. That is R8000 for your pocket. The guys running those routes don’t finance the vehicles; they pay cash for them. If you have 10 taxis, you are making R80000 profit a day. Some guys have 100 taxis running that route.”
With that kind of money at stake, no wonder that protection rackets have sprung up in the industry, men forced by big, well-armed security firms.
I met the boss of a taxi protection outfit in the back office of a heavily fortified warehouse in an industrial area west of Durban.
I’ll call him Sipho to protect his identity. He sat behind a spartan desk doing paperwork that clearly annoyed him. The man was an operator with 25 years in the business and scars to prove it. He gruffly conceded he was getting old and tired. The rough and tumble was taking its toll. To reach Sipho’s inner sanctum involved passing through extreme security. I knocked on a nondescript factory roller shutter door, and was admitted into an empty reception room with CCTV cameras.
I waited alone for a few minutes, before being escorted down a windowless passage and then through two rooms each layered with armed guards.
Sipho sighed. “I don’t take chances. My wife doesn’t drive in the same car as me. Everybody in this business has a big mouth, but to survive you must have heart and you must think: take everything seriously or you will be dead.” He was over the bang-bang, though. It’s not the gun that kills, he said. “It’s the hand holding the gun.”
He was alive because he was paranoid. He explained how the taxi protection businesses boomed in the late 1990s when violence broke out over lucrative routes.
In Durban alone, there are about 15 sizeable private security companies that provide protection to different taxi associations. They say they fill the gap created by the failure of the South African Police Service to deal with crime and lawlessness.
Cops say that private security rogues perpetrate violence to keep themselves in clover.
The bigger protection companies employ upwards of 300 bodyguards. Their armouries are huge. For the most part, they make big bucks providing guards for the taxi ranks. Things get more expensive when the guys ride shotgun with taxis on contested routes.
Sipho rubbed a hand across his pate and scratched his chin thoughtfully. Without real regulation, the taxi business was dominated by “money and fear”: lots of both. Easy cash was a massive enabler of growth. It allowed you to hire more firepower and control more routes.
“These people,” he said, referring to his clients, “are wolves in sheep’s clothing. They talk about peace and regulation but they always want more, so they get trigger-happy cowboys and they intimidate.”
* Ardé is a former deputy editor of the Sunday Tribune and political reporter at the Daily News