Friday, March 12, 2010

Who will take on the taxi mafia?

There is no point in trying to make this look nice. The majority of South Africans travels to work and leisure with transport that is owned and operated by mafia syndicates.

I waited the other day at the gates of a learning institution in Gauteng. There were a few cars around that served as taxis, waiting for students and ferry them to their homes. Parked in front of me were two BMW 325, with rather menacing looking occupants, slim men, physical, cool. One of them went to the taxi drivers, and came back with the money they handed over to him.

Now, I can be mistaken, but it looked like the usual protection racket. In Sicily, it is called the 'pitso' - the daily money collected from small business operators for 'protection'. That I was not too far of the mark was confirmed when my friend told me that the combi operators, the mafia structures that operate the Toyata buses as taxis, had staged earlier a protest at the gates of the institution against the independent taxi drivers from whom they were now collecting money.

While they could not ban the independent taxi drivers, and they probably wanted the institution to do this for them, they went the other route and demanded now protection money from them. The independent drivers were cheaper and more suited to the needs of the students, especially female students who would be dropped right in front of their homes.

The question is what has happened since the end of apartheid to the transport sector? Why are these mafia structures sill in place? At a conference five years ago that evaluated the achievements and short-comings of ten years of democracy, the issue of transport was largely absent. Only a few years later, transport came back on the agenda when it dawned upon government that the delivery of houses, toilets, and jobs, would not be sufficient without infrastructure.

As an apparently efficient public rapid bus system is being introduced in Johannesburg, the taxi mafia is mounting another assault on the commen good by staging strikes and by shooting on buses. In light of the daily revelations of corruption between politicians and business interests, it is not far-flung to think that someone in political offices was benefitting and dragging their feet in taking the mafia on. I am waiting for revelations on why it took so long to take on this mafia. Any ideas?

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