Africa's Taxi Chaos

Taxi chaos, an African problem - The role of better labour conditions

According to Arrive Alive, the South African taxi industry consists of minibuses, dominating 90% of the market, and metered taxis active in the remaining 10% of the market. Public transport by taxis account for 65% of the transport total, 20% by bus and 15% by rail, yet the mini bus taxi could be labelled as a weapon of destruction.  A danger to its passengers and other road users -- is this because it’s old and badly maintained? Or are there other factors, such as poor law enforcement, poor regulatory frameworks – and, crucially human factor?

Minibus taxi chaos reigns elsewhere in Africa, too, and lessons from other African countries could inform us here in South Africa.

In a paper presented at the 32nd Southern African Transport Conference (SATC13) in Pretoria today, Erick Madinda of the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania says, “Minibus transport service provision in Dar es Salaam city has been characterised by a very harsh operational environment which has contributed to unreliable, uncomfortable and unsafe transport services…”

The very same harsh environment was present at the birth of South Africa’s taxi industry, and has continued to grow and nurture a dynamic but difficult environment “– it is not easy to understand, and is so dangerous,” writes Siyabulela Fobosi in his 2 May article for Consultancy Africa Intelligence.

“The way in which work is organised in the industry is very complicated. It is the case that taxi drivers do not know their labour rights. The minibus taxis’ modus operandi is rather decentralised, with the taxi operator having more in common with the roadside hawker than a formal subsidised bus. In this industry, the owner and driver act very much as free agents. Every taxi driver makes decisions on a daily basis as to how he is going to operate so as to make the most money. The taxi owner expects the driver to make as much money as he can. The work of taxi drivers is considerably less structured or controlled than that of workers within formalised public transport such as trains and buses.”

He points out that, in the absence of formalised employment contracts, “the minibus taxi industry in South Africa has been marked historically by exploitative labour relations between owners and drivers, which seemingly maximise profit at all costs.”

It is this rather chaotic environment that Madinda points to in his analysis of operation problems in Dar es Salaam: “Policy reforms in the sector need to be directed towards strengthening the institutional and regulatory framework in which public transport thrives, formalising the operators …”

And formalising the operators will contribute to improving the taxi drivers’ working conditions, which feed into high fatality rates in Dar es Salaam, as they do in South Africa. In Dar es Salaam, 93% of fatal accidents involve daladalas, as the minibuses are called, which are driven by people who earn a daily fee, are under huge pressure to drive from morning till late at night, and have no job security.

South Africa has, of course, introduced labour laws that aim to control the industry (Sectoral Determination 11: Taxi Sector), but this is often ignored: “Taxi drivers are simply paid on commission – a taxi owner/operator would say that he needs a collection of X amount for the day in his pocket, and how the taxi driver makes that amount is his business,” writes Fobosi.

Perhaps taking a very strict approach to enforcing and formalising labour law and practice in the industry would be as important as the recapitalisation project aimed at replacing the aging taxi fleet – as much as poor brakes and bald tyres, the human resource practices which encourage reckless and dangerous behaviour drive fatalities on our roads.