Empty supermarket shelves in Kloof Street is but a side effect of the ongoing taxi strike in Cape Town – picture taken on Wednesday 9 August 2023.
Mr Geordin Hill-Lewis
Executive Mayor, City of Cape Town
Dear Mr Mayor,
AN OPEN LETTER: CAPE TOWN DESERVES BETTER PUBLIC TRANSPORT
I am exhausted. I am usually an optimistic person, full of ideas and proposed solutions to any challenge we face as a society. But today I am without that zest for life, depleted of ideas. Just ‘sommer’ tired. I am sure you are too.
I am a migrant to your city and province, having moved here in January to expand the tourism business I originally started in Johannesburg. I was tired of the dysfunctional city governance and urban management of the city I called home for the previous 27 years. I was optimistic about Cape Town in so many ways. It was not only a natural expansion of our business that brought me here, but also the knowledge of a better managed city.
I have watched you work, without any arrogance, trying to create a better Cape Town for all. I have been encouraged by your openness, embracing the challenges of a fast-growing city (some predict that the population will double in the next decade). You have shown yourself to be pro affordable housing, urban densification and creating a better functional and more livable city. A tough task as you preside over the city with the strongest urban pattern of apartheid segregation in South Africa. Here people remain separated by meticulously planned infrastructure barriers – apartheid buffer strips comprising highways, dysfunctional railways and industrial zones, separating the workers class and poor from the middle and upper classes. While 29 years of democracy have allowed some people to cross this economic and colour barrier, its ongoing existence is undeniable and a challenge to overcome – which I believe you are ready to face.
While Cape Town is being voted the most beautiful city in the world to visit by newspapers and magazines written for wealthy travelers from the ‘first’ world (and how desperately we do want them to travel here and spend their money in our city), we all know that this city also has a dark underbelly and a hangover from Apartheid.
Yet I believe that Cape Town could become the African city of the future. By embracing current migration, and facilitating fast urbanisation, it could overcome the spatial barriers of the past. By becoming the innovation hub of South Africa, especially in terms of Artificial Intelligency, Information Technology and Renewable Energy it could develop into an economic powerhouse. The city of choice for South Africans. However, to achieve this, it would need to tackle major challenges. It would need to facilitate development of denser and affordable housing within easy access of economic opportunities (as opposed to far out) AND the provision of decent and efficient public transport covering all parts of the city.
In terms of public transport, Cape Town scores poorly and this must be your biggest challenge. The current taxi strike is therefore of critical importance to the city. It is clear from your stance and the public support you receive (across colour and income lines if comments on Twitter are considered) that people in Cape Town are fed up with the poor quality and service of the minibus taxi industry. People had enough of the dangerous driving and unroadworthy vehicles. This is not only the wealthier classes screaming on the highways as taxis swerve between lanes during their morning commute, but also desperate commuters who have no alternative mode of transport, forced to use taxis every day.
We know you did not create the situation. The taxi industry is in every possible way a hangover of the apartheid era. But it cannot simply be wished away, nor bullied away. It is used by millions of people every day and without it, your city and province would grind to a permanent halt. It is simply not possible for every Capetonian to commute by car. Unless you destroyed the entire city and landscape by building wide and elevated highways all over at a cost that would be simply unsustainable.
Therefore, the strike cannot be allowed to continue and the strong-armed approach to the most needed mode of transport in the city cannot carry on.
Yes, in the ideal world, taxis could be phased out and replaced by a proper railway system (not only infrastructure but properly managed trains on a reliable schedule and routes), as well as an expanded My City Bus system. But we cannot wipe away what already exists without causing so much upheaval that nothing would be left over after the mayhem.
We cannot have violence in the streets with innocent tourists and commuters dying along the way, as has been the case. We cannot have businesses close early or not opening at all. We cannot have warehouses and factories standing closed. We cannot have supermarket shelves empty. We cannot have the bad press overseas that will destroy one of our top growth sectors – tourism. We have to come up with something better – and fast.
The people of Cape Town cannot become a political ball being played between National Government (and their impractical, naïve laws). Provincial and Local Government. We cannot become fodder in a war for votes in the next election. The people of Cape Town must come first. The economy that will sustain us all must be a priority. This strike and the political outfall is not about taxis, it is about the very existence and future of your city.
I am perplexed by how little debate and discourse there is within politicts and the media about public transport. What is your city, your province and your political party’s plan for public transport in the future? What is the plan of national government which still controls the key infrastructure in this regard? How can Capetonians and South Africans know that something better is in the making? Or must we merely accept that some taxis will be impounded, and some reckless drivers fined? The conditions of taxis and status of road safety may improve a little as a result. But millions will still have to rely on a dysfunctional public transport system?
How is it possible that hundreds of thousands of scholars cannot get to school unless they use on of these taxis? Is education not a provincial responsibility? Why then is there not a better school transport system? Just like school feeding schemes? Why are there not better trains? Yes, you could blame that on Prasa – a national state-owned entity. But Gauteng overcame this partially by building a provincial train system. What is your city and provinces plan? In Johannesburg, the Rea Vaya bus system is inefficiently managed and buses poorly maintained, but it does connect Soweto and the city effectively. While the route to Alexandra and Sandton is at least five years behind schedule, construction is continuing. People in Johannesburg have more alternatives and a taxi strike would never be as effective as it is in Cape Town.
But why have we built rapid bus transit systems without incorporating efficient minibus taxis into the system? Why do My City Bus routes in Cape Town straddle the burbs with only one route really going into the townships of the Cape Flats. Yes, I realize National Government has all along tried to protect the taxi industry, to the detriment of the people. But it is time to stop blaming and to be making plans instead. Your city must offer a better vision and an implementable plan. Which will not result in an ongoing war between public transport operators.
Thoughts about public transport
Here are some of my thoughts. Just off the cuff. I am sure there are many more complex political issues and interests of stakeholders to consider. But we must start somewhere. It is time to talk about how we as Capetonians live, operate and get around. It is the key to our future.
We all want to live in an organized and functional society where everyone is equal before the law. But talking about enforcing law and order is also what PW Botha and his predecessors did. Laws are not always just (apartheid laws certainly were not), nor practical. It is up to the governors of our society to consider the law and to actively work for more just laws. It cannot be an excuse that the impounding of taxis is the consequence of a national law ‘forced’ onto your province and city.It is obvious that this approach and the exorbitant impoundment fines would result in anger and become counter-productive. Whether the law is even constitutional is open for debate. What have your city and province done to ensure that the essential service of taxis operates smoothly, efficiently and safely? What local or provincial laws could you have passed to make it better here than in the rest of the country? What processes could you have followed to avoid this situation?What warning system could you have implemented rather than waiting for taxis on a highway, stopping them and impounding them to the determinant of the very commuters and citizens of your city who must vote for you, and who expect a functioning city from you? Why not go to the ranks from which the taxis leave and issue them with warnings BEFORE they are even on the road. Why not give them 48 hours to report back and show that their vehicles comply. I was once stopped in the UK, driving a car of which a brake light was not working. I was given a warning and told to take the vehicle to the police station the next day to show it was fixed. No impoundment, no fine. Had I failed to bring in the fixed vehicle, the warning would then have become a fine. There must be a better way managing the system than being retroactive and punitive. Using the law as an excuse shows your officials only wanted to punish the taxi drivers/operators. Are they seen as an inconvenience and nuisance to private car drivers in Cape Town?Mr Mayor, you should be better than our incompetent national government. Cape Town should be better managed and operated.
How efficient is your province or city at registering public transport vehicles? How quick is the process? How much does it cost? I do not have knowledge of the circumstances minibus taxis face, but I do know it is very slow if not impossible to register an Uber or Bolt vehicle. I have friends who had to get out of a Bolt which they legitimately ordered, as it did not have the correct registration papers. How does this benefit tourism – when people cannot get around because of a failing registration system? How could the customers be expected to get out and find another vehicle, leaving them where it was possibly not even safe? Why is the traffic police fixated with impounding the vehicle above everything else? Surely there must be a better, preventative system to follow? I believe the same problem exists in the case of tourism transport vehicles in the Western Cape? Many tourism businesses are unable to register their vehicles and get public permits for their vehicles in reasonable time.
I really do not have detailed knowledge of how the minibus taxi industry operates and the role Santaco and others play. But some basic thoughts and ideas: the taxi industry is a remarkable phenomenon. It grew out of the opposition to apartheid. In those times, those considered not real citizens but just convenient labour that had to be tolerated, were relegated to racially coded townships. Their only way of getting around was by train which took them to their place of work in the morning and back home at night. There was no reason to travel elsewhere or enjoy the amenities of the city that were reserved for others only.
But the reality of having to get around and the inefficiency of the train system to reach the sprawling townships, created a rebel mode of transport. The minibus taxi. Ironically so, this was in a time when most transport services were state controlled. Yet a private public transport system evolved. Of course, many people benefited from this, including the new owners of the taxis who could now operate businesses even though technically they were not supposed to, as well as the minibus manufacturers, petrol and diesel companies and property owners who could provide ranking space. No wonder a corrupt system of control and exploitation was born!
Ironically the ANC government did not live up to its founding philosophy and principles of nationalism, which would have meant nationalizing the industry and making it a state-owned public service. Instead, the model of outsourcing to private operators and tenderers became the standard for everything in this country. Even the Gautrain and Rea Vaya in Johannesburg are outsourced to some extent to private operators or participants.
There is something to be proud of in how South Africans overcame the incompetence of the apartheid government and found a way to get around, to access work and to travel to places not meant for the very people using the taxis. But 29 years into democracy, we should have developed a much better system already. Taxis are the most used mode of public transport. It should have been prioritized above everything else. There should have been allocated routes, with dedicated lanes, a schedule and routes that could be followed on any app, as well as clean, efficiently managed ranks as thriving public spaces.
The mind boggles if one considers the status of taxi ranks. Vehicles drive a few trips in the morning and late afternoon, transporting commuters to and from work. For most of the day though, they park in a rank, often resulting in an unsanitary mess. The basic principle of public transport is to keep vehicles moving along a route and not letting them occupy prime urban space that could be used for housing or economic activity for most of the day.
It is tragic that the concepts of bus rapid transit and minibus taxis were not integrated. Why could the taxis not follow these routes, drop off commuters at proper stations, use a card payment system and more? Yes, of course they should pay for the use of the infrastructure, but all this could easily be implemented through a commuter card system where the money is received centrally and a part kept for the operation and development of infrastructure with the rest paid out the operators of specific routes.
It is tragic that there is no proper control over taxis today. That some bosses are millionaires if not billionaires. That formal businesses benefit from the system in so many ways (banks in financing, vehicle manufactures, in selling vehicles fuel companies in selling petrol and more). Only for commuters having to deal with unroadworthy, unsafe vehicles, rude service and unreliable operations. But impounding the taxis and wishing them away, or thinking they could be replaced by taking over the province’s railway system, or by expanding My City is simply naïve, impractical and unaffordable. The resultant war for control over the income streams and systems would destroy the entire city and economy. Yes, the situation is that serious. It needs clever thinking, committed negotiation and keeping the interest of our entire society in mind, rather than a ‘them’ and ‘us’ approach.
Controlling transport for economic and political benefit is nothing new. Even in the time of the gold rush in the then Zuid Afrikaanse Republic (Transvaal), President Paul Kruger banned the motorcar in Johannesburg, so that the Boers (farmers) could benefit from the migrant influx and rent out their horses for transport. But the people of the city got rebellious and this eventually, together with a whole lot of other economic circumstance, resulted in the devastating Anglo-Boer (South African) War. We cannot repeat the mistakes of the past again.
That anyone had to die in public violence in this strike is only tragic. The perpetrators should be held accountable. But could the whole disaster have been avoided? Every life counts. In terms of reputation and economic consequences, having a tourist die on the way to the airport negates any of the great work this city and province have done to make it an award-winning tourism mecca. How is there not a safe public transport option to and from the airport? I ask.
What should be done about this tragic situation? I don’t have all the answers as I do not have all the facts. I wish you wisdom and an open mind, Mr Mayor. You come across as a humble and innovative person who only wants the best for the people of this city, province and country. Not as someone who would be caught up in party political battles but who would fight for the greater good of society. Here are some of my ideas. Hopefully a better public transport system could grow about of this debacle. It is something that all your citizens deserve and for which the elected officials of this city, province and country should be held accountable.
Take us into your confidence. I am alarmed at how few facts are in the public domain. The media seems to avoid the tough questions completely. What are the exact demands of Santaco and what was the deal the city/province offered and that was almost agreed to? We the people deserve to know. We should be allowed to form an opinion. Hundreds of thousands of scholars and commuters cannot be expected to accept this dire situation, among others!
Please compromise. Why waste time and money on court orders that would have little meaningful impact? Take the issue and the national government to the Constitutional Court if you must. Declare the national act unlawful and come up with a better system that involves preventative management, a warning system that is fair, the constant checking of taxis BEFORE they even hit the road, as well as efficient and fast, affordable licensing. Get the taxis moving faster and more efficiently to the benefit of the citizens. Compromise but only so that it benefits the people. Promise dedicated taxi lanes with laybys next to the streets where commuters can embark or disembark. Involve the cleverest young people who are streaming into your city, to design commuter maps and apps that show routes, schedules and more. Be innovative! This will take time, but find a way for an interim compromise, that has a timed programme to be rolled out to reach long-term compliance.
Improve ALL public transport in the city and province. Start with My City Bus and Golden Arrow Bus. Why is our public transport still mostly focused on people getting to work and home as if we live in an apartheid city where people cannot mingle and enjoy the best of our amenities all the time? We need buses into the night. We need more routes. Why can I not take a My City bus to Pinelands or to the Southern suburbs? Nor to most of the Cape Flats?
Ensure that all train routes, even if you do not control them, reopen and run proper services. Again, not on weekdays only. Make it possible for people to get around day and night including weekends. Provide people with access to the economy and for tourists to access the full diversity of people and places of this city and province.
Think of a high-speed provincial train service that connects Cape Town to places like Stellenbosch, Somerset West, Franschhoek and nearby rural towns. Make it possible for the influx of migrants to live remotely in the province, creating economic opportunities and jobs all over.
While a high-speed train system would take a decade to design and implement, expand My City as fast as possible. A key necessity is a safe way to get to the airport. I know the My City Bus route from there failed, but it had more to do with the route allocation than anything else. Which person with a huge suitcase in tow would want to take a bus from the airport to the Civic Centre Station where you must get out. Changing to another bus in a complex system to travel to other places. Or worse, to stand on a windy sidewalk with all your belongings trying to call an e-hailing service?
Reopen the airport route please but change the route to places travellers want to go to. From the airport let it make a stop in Pinelands where commuters can also make use of it to get to the city. Then let it stop at the V&A Waterfront where travellers can easily walk to many hotels. Or where they can sit down for a coffee before making use of an uber or bolt to their destination. In the end planning public transport is an exercise in psychology. Consider the traveller’s needs and desires. Let the buses also drive from the airport in the opposite direction to Somerset West and Stellenbosch. You would be surprised how many people want to travel there for business or leisure. At the same time, it would become possible for tourists to access Stellenbosch and the Cape Winelands from the V&A Waterfront.
Ensure that there are many more Ubers and Bolts on the road. How could you want this to be a tourism mecca if travellers struggle to get around? Make sure they can get licensed fast, efficiently and affordably. Again, make sure that there is a preventative system that inspects vehicles and check compliance. Your goal should be to impound the least amount of public transport vehicles possibly. You should not have your police sitting on the highway to check and impound vehicles, by the time they hit the road they should already be compliant!
Make sure the city overcomes it spatial segregation. Already there are good signs in this regard with properties near the V&A Waterfront released by the province to the city. There must be affordable housing in these developments. There must be much more affordable housing in denser layout all around the City Bowl. The key is in the wastelands around the elevated highway coming into the city and passing the harbour. As well as the significant amounts of disused industrial land and railways cutting off the burbs and townships from the city. The area between the Foreshore and Woodstock most importantly. And what about District Six? A hundred thousand people could easily live here in medium density housing. By creating a denser city and overcoming the racial barriers of the past, you would not only reduce the need for private cars and taxi transport, but you would also create a thriving and walkable city. Yes. once this is done the priority must be on a walkable, pedestrian friendly city and cycling lanes. But do not expect commuters to cycle from the Cape Flats to work. That would be unrealistic! Especially, so in the wind.
What you need to do is to sell the people of Cape Town a vision for a better urban live for everyone. For Santaco, for every commuter, every scholar and every tourist. We should work together to reach this goal. It cannot be a case of ‘them’ and ‘us’. This is all of ours’ city. We should not live in a city where everything comes to a standstill because of a taxi strike. Waiters should be able to get to work in a restaurant day and night. A supermarket should be able to stay open late and receive stock. People should be able to get around. The police should focus on keeping people safe from crime and not waste their time on stopping vehicles for impoundment. But yes, all public transport should be kept in good condition, safe and compliant too. It is not easy. It is incredibly complex, but it can be done. All it needs is the will to make it work.
From night buses, to single card payment systems across all public transport, and a vision for a 24/7 city that truly lives up to its apparent reputation as the most beautiful city in the world by becoming a city that invites all to take part in it! It is not rocket science Mr Mayor. I can be done.
I greet you humbly. Mr Mayor. The responsibility is not only yours but also that of the Premier, the President, the various levels of transport authorities in government, the taxi associations and the people. I pray that we can find a better solution for everyone. Sisonke. Together.
(Founder: LocalPlaces – JoburgPlaces & IkapaPlaces)
Urban activist and believer in a better South Africa.
Devastating economic consequences of the taxi strike.