Money is not the fix to public transport

The South African National Taxi Council (Santaco) has asked the South African government for around R5 billion in COVID-19 relief aid. The national government had offered R1.1 billion. This inspired a taxi strike, mostly in Gauteng, on 22 June 2020. Minibus taxis transport 15.6 million passengers daily.

South African Minister of Transport, Fikile Mbalula, condemned the strike claiming it harmed poor black South Africans. Varying misconceptions have also been broadcast about whether the minibus taxi industry deserves more money. The wider debate, however, is on how to transform South Africa’s transport system, which is currently strongly based on minibus taxis — and is most harmful for the people that commute.

As covered in my book, No Leaders No Wars, over the past few years, the South African government has spent R130 billion on busses and trains, which are used routinely by only 6% and 3% of South African households respectively. The government has specifically subsidised the high-speed Gautrain with R5 billion over the past few years and the government has, over a couple decades, given R29 billion to South African Airways (SAA). In comparison, the government has only given R2,5 billion to the taxi industry in the past few years.

GTAC Performance and Expenditure Review

Despite this, the use of public transport (busses and trains) has not grown. The core reason is that bus depots and train stations are still far away from where people live and taxis are far more agile. So, people use taxis because they are more convenient to their living conditions. They will continue to do so if the country does not reverse apartheid spatial planning. So does this mean we should increase funding to the taxi industry?

Increasing funding does not address structural problems unless that funding is addressing structural problems (i.e. building housing along bus routes). We should be careful not to throw money into a void. Despite all the funding to SAA, there is now a discussion on laying off 90% of the workforce. When funding is not used to the benefit of the worker or the consumer, that funding is not helpful.

The taxi industry is underfunded by the government because they are privately owned. The government has instead given large subsidies for public transport. Granted, a lot of the subsidies for public transport are not actually reaching the public. So it is not fair to simply deny funding to an entity because it is privately-owned.

Either the national government should start taking a greater interest in the model used by taxis or find ways to make public transport more effective. To address the immediate issue, the government will have to admit that it must work with minibus taxis. The idea spotlighted by the taxi strike is to give more funding to the taxi industry.

However, minibus taxes are profit-driven entities with a long history of worker exploitation. At the same time, there are questionable past cases where government collaboration with the taxi industry has overspent resources and in one case required an investigation by the Public Protector. Also consider the high price hikes and safety issues prevalent in the taxi industry. It’s not clear that simply giving taxi bosses more money will address any of these issues, especially given that taxis generally generate turnover but that income is not used to improve safety for passengers and heighten labour standards for workers.

Certainly, the government can and should re-divert public transport finances to minibus taxis but there should be careful consideration to make sure these private entities don’t exploit additional financing for the personal gain of owners. We should be careful to not fall into the trap of believing more finances can solve systemic issues within the taxi industry which harm the worker and commuter.

Taxi bosses are already a powerful force in South Africa. By reducing funding to public transport and diverting to taxis, the power shifts further toward a group of profit-driven people, without the people’s interest.

Whatever decision the government takes should be one where the money spent actually goes to the people who travel daily on South Africa’s roads. It’s not helpful to give taxi bosses R5 billion if workers are exploited, unaware of their labour rights and struggle to unionise. Moreover, operators and passengers need to be safe. The position we take should simply be the one that benefits the many poor South Africans. If subsidising taxis will do this then we should subsidise them.

Overall, we can support more funding to the taxi industry but this issue runs deeper than funding and simply giving taxis more money solves not enough. Transport in South Africa needs a new paradigm that puts the commuter first. This means we should not fund transport in the interests of owners, but in the interest of people.

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