Six people dead. Tens of thousands stranded and anxious, many walking. Buses ablaze. Fear. Workplace absenteeism. Schools shut. Court interdicts and a virtual war on social media over who is to blame.
Commuters endured eight days of hell as the South African National Taxi Council (Santaco)-led strike had a domino effect on families, businesses and tourists in the Western Cape because of a battle of wills over how traffic violations are enforced, or disproportionately enforced, against minibus taxis.
Santaco called the province-wide strike last Thursday in protest about the perceived heavy-handed approach by law enforcement authorities who, on average, have been impounding 1,000 taxis and private vehicles a month in the City of Cape Town for alleged traffic violations.
Key to the dispute was whether an amended city traffic bylaw making provision for the impoundment of vehicles for certain offences is being over-zealously applied. The city refuted the claim, saying impoundments comply with existing national legislation regulating public transport.
One of the first unwitting victims of the strike, which left thousands stranded, was a primary school pupil. Eleven-year-old Qaqambile Mthiyane’s scholar transport did not arrive in Sea Point. He was found on a freeway late at night by a woman searching for her own child when he was attempting to walk 30km home to Khayelitsha.
Scores of people, young and old, hitched rides or walked on freeways in the dark to their destinations. The taxi industry transports about 70% of working commuters in the province, according to the Cape Chamber of Commerce.
Elective surgeries were cancelled at Tygerberg, Red Cross and Groote Schuur hospitals and several clinics closed their doors due to staff shortages, affecting business across the metro, and sporadic violence. Deliveries of medicine to outpatients were disrupted.
Schooling was severely affected with 852,259 pupils staying at home on Tuesday and 92 schools closed. This affected about 71% of school pupils, said the provincial education department.
Work absenteeism of up to 80%, reputational damage and low customer turnout were widespread in areas, said the Cape Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
Many roads were shut across the city, and police confirmed incidents of looting at shopping malls in Gugulethu, Nyanga, Khayelitsha, Mfuleni and Kraaifontein. Protesters “violently entered shops and fled with household appliances, clothing and liquor”, said police.
“We have national laws in place that govern the infringements and penalties dealt with in the contested conditions of operating licences. The national laws are in place to ensure fair rules are applicable to all citizens irrespective of the city or province they reside in. It can never be that a city will define itself outside the parameters of national laws and implement penalties that are out of sync with these laws,” transport minister Sindisiwe Chikunga said on Tuesday.
She called for impounded taxis to be released.
Cape Town mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis accused the minister of spreading “misinformation”, insisting taxis were impounded “for offences under the National Land Transport Act (NLTA). Not a single taxi is impounded under the city’s bylaws, as falsely claimed by the minister”.
Premier Alan Winde and Lewis met Santaco on Thursday and expressed optimism about a potential resolution to the impasse after submitting a “very reasonable” proposal.
“Obviously we would’ve hoped we’d have a final agreement, but we don’t have that yet. We made what we think, and I think, an unanimously very reasonable, considerate proposal,” said Lewis.
Behind the negotiations was a tale of innocent people caught in the crossfire, including the 79-year-old woman whose face was smashed by a rock hurled through her windscreen and chilling voice notes that spread fear across communities.
Law Enforcement Advancement Plan (Leap) officer Zanikhaya Kwinana was shot dead in Nyanga last Friday in a marked law enforcement vehicle during an alleged ambush.
“When his colleagues realised he had been hit, they sped to Heideveld Day Hospital but the officer was declared deceased on arrival,” said the city.
Another unwitting victim of the violence that coincided with the strike was respected 40-year-old British trauma and orthopaedic doctor Kar Hao Teoh, who was fatally shot after making a wrong turn to Nyanga with his wife Sara and two-year-old son Hugo on the first day of the strike.
Cabinet on Thursday directed Chikunga to ensure any taxi-operating conditions that contradict the law are removed.
The strike caused widespread disruption to businesses, according to the Cape Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
“Although for many sectors it is too soon to quantify the economic loss, all report widespread absenteeism linked to commuters' inability to reach the workplace,” said the chamber’s deputy president Derryn Brigg.
“One sector drew a parallel between the impact of the strike on business operations and the impact of Covid-19.”
Cape Town port operated with 60% of its staff, hampering ship movements, container discharge and collection or deliveries. Some goods did not reach production lines, and finished products did not reach consumers.
Shortages of basic food such as bread were evident during the week as shop shelves remained empty in townships and suburbs. Residents in some townships, prevented from going to work, reported being charged R30 or more for a loaf of bread.
The city provided escorts for food delivery trucks.
While the strike was initially intended to end on Thursday this week, Santaco said it would last for at least 48 hours longer as the organisation prepared to go to court in a bid to have impounded taxis released.
The City of Cape Town said at least 198 criminal cases had been registered at police stations relating to the strike, including charges of murder, attempted murder, arson, malicious damage to property, assault and assault GBH.
Santaco has engaged the services of lawyers to apply for an urgent interdict via courts for the release of all vehicles that have been impounded and to interdict the City of Cape Town and the department of mobility from impounding vehicles until all matters have been resolved (pending another Santaco court battle over the bylaws in February 2024).
When the strike was supposed to be called off on Thursday evening, Santaco said part of the resolution reached between the taxi industry and government was an agreement that the next 14 days would be used to work towards the release of impounded vehicles.
“On behalf of Santaco Western Cape, I convey our sincerest condolences to the families of those who tragically lost their lives during the stayaway. We stand with you in this time of grief and offer our profound sympathies. We also extend our heartfelt sympathy to everyone who was negatively affected by the events of the past days," said provincial Santaco chair Mandla Hermanus.
“It bears noting that Santaco accepted the same proposal that the City of Cape Town and the Western Cape government originally put on the table last Friday,” said mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis.
“The tragic implication is that all the violence, the deplorable loss of life, and the damage to property and to our local economy was for naught."
Details of the agreement reached to end the strike include:
- Impoundments under the NLTA will continue for vehicles driving without an operating licence, on the incorrect route, without a driver’s licence or which are not roadworthy.
- The taxi task team will define a list, within 14 days, of additional major offences in terms of which vehicles will continue to be impounded in future. This will take the form of a Standard Operating Procedure to guide enforcement staff on the exercise of the discretionary power provided for in the NLTA.
- The task team will ensure all traffic offences affecting commuter safety remain as major offences. Road safety for commuters and other road users was non-negotiable.
- The task team will compile an agreed upon list of minor offences which do not have commuter safety implications and will not be impoundable.
- Santaco agreed not to call a strike again in the middle of a working day, but rather give at least 36 hours’ notice before planned strike action.
- Before calling strike action the task team will have a dispute escalation and resolution clause to escalate disputes directly to the premier and mayor before strike action will be considered.
The entire agreement is subject to there being no future resumption of taxi-related violence. Any resumption of taxi violence will nullify the agreement.
Additional reporting by Philani Nombembe, Kim Swartz, Bobby Jordan and Sipokazi Fokazi