There’s a lot of vested interest at Bree Street rank
EEP calm and be kwaal-free. That’s the advice on a sticker on the back of a taxi heading out of the Bree Street rank down over Nelson Mandela bridge and on towards the M1 South. It’s en route to Soweto, hustling on the highway alongside other drivers packed full for Chiawelo, Mapetla, Naledi, Pimville, Protea Glen, Protea North, Senaoane, Dube, Nancefield, Phefeni and Rockville.
Other minibuses out of the rank rumble east down Bree to Jules Street and Yeoville; others, north to Randburg, Fairland and Greymont. It’s a relentless turnover of raincoats and umbrellas in the queues. Bleak outside under an oppressive overhang of week-long cloud, it’s gloom inside under the dim lighting shining off the greasy puddles of rain. The smell of urine clobbers your senses. The steps are slippery.
But it’s busy as ever yesterday, the day after the United Taxi Association Front staged a wildcat strike over permits – the legendary kwaal stickers,
Kdescribing the crushing of the spirit, all over its leverage. There was a different mood on Monday. Around the corner of the rank in Gwigwi Mrwebi Street – named for the big 1960s kwela star – renegade drivers had slapped out hunks of meat on a braai the size of a shack.
Sheltered under tenting in the drizzle, their spot doubles up as parking and a carwash. But there was no driving out of there that afternoon. They’d tumbled out of the lot and into the street, some waving beers at passing traffic, some waving car parts.
The official version was that the strike was unannounced, but the traders who pay about R300 a month to run their tables inside the rank say they didn’t show up on Monday. They’d been told to stay away. By yesterday, they were back with their polony and white bread sandwiches and scones sweating in plastic bags. The gold exchange was open, and Doctor Shoemaker was taking out his spinning wheels and dusty files.
On Monday, the musk of gangsterism was all over this space, while on the other side of the bridge, in Braamfontein, feet padded the quiet carpets of the boardroom where the provincial portfolio committee on roads and transport meets.
This is one of those recurring nightmares for the city czars, who can’t overexercise their influence on the province. Only two-thirds of taxis in Gauteng are eligible for permits and a reprieve from e-tolls, while the others are not. It isn’t a rare problem and it has been around for a long time. But delays have punctuated the year with violence, and Joburg, Lagos of the south, will always feel that in its marrow.
Even if the Noord Street rank is the busiest of the nine in the city itself, and the one where the miniskirt became a political act, it’s Bree that always seems to have the guts for a fight. It has the backing of the profitable route north, and it has the bloodied history of 2010 when it was in the vanguard of the vio- lent strike against Rea Vaya ahead of the World Cup. A man died during those clashes. Some commuters still line up in relative trepidation there, day after day. Some say if you step out of line, you could get a warm klap. So it’s better that you don’t change your mind.
In February, some drivers of the National Taxi Alliance striking over e-toll exemptions did much the same there as they did on Monday: intimidating as they patrolled the area. Bullying, and yanking people desperate for a lift out of private cars. Banging with fists and flat hands on the bonnets of cars when there was no escape and threatening to set rush hour on fire.
The rank’s breezy freedom architecture, with its grand collection-basket doors, took 10 years and R100 million to get going, and it has been around for another dozen, serving 200 000 daily.
But there’ll always be a twist in that happy heart.
Bree’s business isn’t a game.