History of the SA taxi industry: the 1980s

Their place in the sun

Well into the 1970s, the fledgling taxi industry struggled to find its feet. Still mostly illegal, the industry operated under the radar, transporting passengers under the guise of private vehicles. In the late 1970s, operators found a loophole in the Road Transportation Act of 1977. Under the act vehicles transporting ten or more people were classified as buses, requiring a licence. By leaving one seat of their ten-seater vehicles open, drivers could operate legally, without a licence.

Permits to operate continued to be largely unobtainable for black businesspeople, as the National Transport Commission and the ten local road transport boards responsible for issuing permits were hostile to black business ownership. In addition, the taxis faced almost impossible competition from the state-owned and subsidised railway and bus companies, which operated on the same routes that taxis tried to carve out.

“To get a licence was difficult, because there was a bus and a rail company using the routes,” says Boni. “Those people were very tough. They had lawyers, so they tried to push the taxis out.”

Uniting to meet commuter demand

While the bus and rail companies were placing the government under considerable pressure to not issue permits to black taxi operators, demand was growing from commuters and employers for an inexpensive, flexible mode of public transport. The minibus taxi industry was growing, and drivers increasingly operated without permits, which was illegal. To create a unified voice, around 60 000 operators and drivers banded together in 1981, to establish the first ever taxi association, the South African Black Taxi Association (SABTA).

Both legal and illegal taxi operators were continuously subjected to fines and often had to forfeit their vehicles, with enforcement coming predominantly from the now defunct South African Railways Police Force.

“One day, there were riots in our area. The police came into my house and my vehicle’s keys were lying on the table. They just grabbed the keys and left,” says Boni. One of his taxis was confiscated for no reason, and he had to wait thirteen months for it to be returned.

“I again hired a lawyer, who told me the police have no case, and that I will get my vehicle back. Thirteen months later I got a call to go and collect my taxi. I went to the pound in Johannesburg, where my taxi was waiting – spotlessly clean.”

Local authorities also tried to stifle the industry’s growth by restricting access to taxi ranks. Permission had to be granted by the traffic departments of local authorities for taxis to park in designated areas. By refusing permission, authorities forced taxi drivers to operate illegally, further subjecting them to harassment.

In metropolitan centres such as Johannesburg and Pretoria, taxi ranks were regularly closed by traffic authorities. In response, taxi operators would stop their operations and protest, resulting in the arrests of scores of operators.

An industry is legalised

Fearing that the growing taxi industry might become more politicised and a launching pad for increasing political pressure, the government commissioned several studies into the industry. In 1983, Peter Welgemoed, an academic from the Rand Afrikaans University (now University of Johannesburg) launched a study that found taxis should be completely banned.

At the same time a parallel government study, the National Policy Study, recommended that bus subsidies be phased out and minibus taxis should be allowed to compete freely with buses. The study proposed that taxis should be licensed to carry up to sixteen passengers, but the issuing of new permits should be regulated and restricted. “Minibus taxis do have their place in the sun,” said then Director General of Transport, Adriaan Eksteen. A third government structure, the Competition Board, however, vehemently opposed the quota system, saying the industry should be entirely deregulated.

While the government was debating the issue, the taxi industry was rapidly growing. By 1987, the government decided the taxi industry should be completely deregulated. By 1989, around 50 000 taxis were operating nationally and the industry had gained the largest share of the commuter market.

Taxi associations take control

The South African Taxi Association (SABTA) opposed the policy of complete deregulation of the industry, as it would allow anyone – including white people – to get permits. In the absence of government involvement, the association quickly took control of the industry, imposing strict rules on members. Where under the previous rules, operators were allowed to travel anywhere within a 25km of a specified point of operations – which made transport via minibus taxis extremely flexible and convenient – operators now had to adhere to strict conditions and routes in line with their SABTA-issued permits.

“[SABTA’s] law was very strict. Even today you cannot operate illegally. Now, you get the taxi squad – those are the people who will moer you when you don’t have a permit and you’re not registered with the taxi association,” says Boni.

The association’s rules almost cost his business. SABTA had a clause where they said you are not allowed to own a taxi if you are formally employed,” says Boni, who still had a full-time job while his two taxis were his side hustle. He wasn’t about to let go of his business, which had taken him years of thankless effort to build, that easily.

“I went to the transport department and licensed the business in my daughter’s name,” he says.

Just out of school, his daughter, Mamakgoa, took over his taxi business, running it until just before he retired from his formal job in 2003.

The sudden and complete deregulation of the industry left a large void in its management, leaving space for opportunists to take advantage. While SABTA vied for a monopoly in the sector, new opposing taxi associations sprang up and new entrepreneurs surged into the market. The mushrooming of new players in the industry set the stage for decades of bloodshed, where industry turf wars were settled by the barrel of a gun.