Me­ter ticks for city taxis

With fewer than 300 days to the World Cup, the mode of trans­port most tourists are likely to use is not ready, writes SEAN CHRISTIE

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - LIFE -

NOT LONG ago I was tak­ing ex­er­cise on Tafel­berg Road when I sensed I was be­ing fol­lowed. I turned to find a Mazda Midge crunch­ing along be­hind me in semi-stall. This tail that stopped and started when I did caused me to for­get my Highveld-forged in­stinct for self­p­reser­va­tion and bang on its bon­net.

A head emerged from the driver’s side. “Taxi?”

As I watched the (roundly dis­abused) driver con­tinue along the road to ha­rass a pair of jog­gers ahead of me, an­other taxi filled in be­hind. The sun was set­ting and I was cast in the ve­hi­cle’s head­lights like the prover­bial rab­bit.

Now, any­one fa­mil­iar with the hu­man ecol­ogy of Tafel­berg Road would won­der, as did I, what had hap­pened to cause th­ese taxi driv­ers, who nor­mally await tourist fares in an or­derly line by the cable­way, to pur­sue such un­likely quarry as jog­gers and plea­sure walk­ers?

Then it occurred to me that in the years of hoopla about trans­port re­form I hadn’t heard a sin­gle ut­ter­ance on me­tered taxis. What, I won­dered, in a now-fa­mil­iar ac­cess of civic pride, will the tourists think come 2010?

In pur­su­ing a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of this lit­tle-known in­dus­try it soon be­came clear that, broadly de­fined, the cab­bie trade in Cape Town is much older than most peo­ple think.

In its first one-and-a-half cen­turies, trans­porta­tion in Cape Town would have been the un­re­mu­ner­ated in­dus­try of slaves, many of them Malay. It is no co­in­ci­dence that the dis­ap­pear­ance of the sedan chair – a box for a sin­gle hu­man passenger car­ried on poles by two un­for­tu­nates – co­in­cided with eman­ci­pa­tion in the 1830s.

A neater ori­gin for the mod­ern taxi­cab, both in terms of its en­dur­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics and et­y­mol­ogy, is the ap­pear­ance of the first han­som cab in 1849.

Han­soms quickly be­came pop­u­lar with Vic­to­rian Capeto­ni­ans for their abil­ity to ma­noeu­vre around traf­fic jams. At­ti­tudes to­wards the driv­ers, how­ever, were more am­biva­lent. In 1884, William Clark Rus­sell re­marked, in his Voy­age to the Cape, on “the ex­traor­di­nary pos­ture of lazi­ness into which the (han­som cab) driv­ers con­trive to sink, while their horses are stand­ing still”.

The 1920s emerge from the Cape archives as a par­tic­u­larly chaotic time for pub­lic trans­port. The first horse­less car­riage had ap­peared in 1897, as had elec­tric trams, and from 1908 mo­tor taxi­cabs car­ry­ing clock­work me­ters had been ply­ing for hire along­side mo­tor taxi-cy­cles, han­soms and lan­daus.

The driv­ers of all, it seems, made their liv­ing off the docks, many by con­vey­ing sailors to and from broth­els. Of the six men who lost their cab li­cences in 1924, four were “as­so­ci­ates of pros­ti­tutes and pimps”.

Ge­orge Todd, 86, of Marine Taxis, ex­plained to me how in the 1950s, when he started his busi­ness, the me­tered taxi in­dus­try was still tied to the ocean. “We de­pended on the Union Cas­tle mail­ships, of which there were fre­quently two in port,” he said.

“Then in 1956 we had the Suez Cri­sis and that meant ship­ping had to once again come around the Cape, the same in 1967 with the Is­raeli war – it was dur­ing th­ese times that the in­dus­try grew and de­vel­oped.”

In the 1970s South Africa’s pariah sta­tus with the West re­sulted in the gov­ern­ment pur­su­ing warm re­la­tions with Ja­pan, whose fish­er­men were per­mit­ted to use Cape Town’s port. Ac­cord­ing to Su­gar Girls and Sea­men au­thor Henry Trotter, Cape Town’s adapt­able cab­bies “started to learn the ba­sics of Ja­panese, Tai­wanese, Korean and In­done­sian… The smarter ones re­alised early on that by bridg­ing the lin­guis­tic and cul­tural bar­ri­ers be­tween them­selves and the sea­men, they could cor­ner whole eth­nic mar­kets.”

Old in­dus­try hands re­mem­ber the pe­riod from 1970s to the 1990s as a golden era in which the fish­er­men had deep pock­ets and dock­side se­cu­rity was por­ous. “Be­fore the new gov­ern­ment many of the driv­ers were smug­gling out of those docks,” re­calls the owner of Ex­cite Taxis, who prefers not to be named. “I my­self saw guys smug­gling bloody guns out of those docks. Guns my broer, out of Rus­sian con­tain­ers.”

The au­thor­i­ties, by all ac­counts, nev­er­the­less kept a tight reg­u­la­tory rein on the in­dus­try. Abubaker Safodien be­lieves the apartheid gov­ern­ment “had a cab sys­tem which was a good sys­tem, an ex­cel­lent sys­tem. Come 1994 every­one comes in ap­ply­ing for per­mits to carry tourists, cour­tesy ve­hi­cles and what.

“Avis, El­wierda and so on have been com­ing into the in­dus­try and they are killing us. How can they ex­pect the me­tered taxi man with his lit­tle tjor­rie to com­pete with cour­tesy buses and so on?”

Safodien vo­calises one of the mod­ern in­dus­try’s two great com­plaints – the per­cep­tion that ho­tels pre­fer their guests to use tour op­er­a­tors and hire-car ser­vices in­stead of me­tered taxis, and that many of th­ese are, in fact, not prop­erly per­mit­ted to con­duct tourists.

The PR heads of ho­tels like The Cape Grace and Sol Kerzner’s The One&Only counter that ser­vice stan­dards in the me­tered taxi in­dus­try are too vari­able to be de­pended upon, which raises the in­dus­try’s other ma­jor gripe – the hy­per­trophic spread of pi­rate and sec­ond-rate taxis driven by northerly Africans.

“It is bad for us,” is the opin­ion of Ex­cite’s man­age­ment. “Why? They don’t run good cars, they don’t know where places are, they maybe don’t even have driver’s li­cences, and they over­charge. But the prob­lem is re­ally the gover nment, be­cause there have been no changes to the reg­u­la­tions in 15 years. No reg­u­la­tion, no law en­force­ment, that’s how it works.”

Hop­ing to view this sit­u­a­tion from the other side, I headed for Tafel­berg Road again, to the base of Platteklip Gorge, where I found six shabby-looking taxis parked in a crooked line. I ex­plained my mis­sion and soon the driv­ers – Bo­mani and Rogers from Malawi, Hi­lary from Zim­babwe, De­sire from the DRC, John from Braz­zav­ille and Eric from Bu­rundi, were crammed in and around Bo­mani’s Toy­ota Tazz.

“It doesn’t mat­ter if you have a for­eign driver’s li­cence,” ex­plained De­sire, “you can still drive a taxi. We know it is not le­gal, but the traf­fic cops never check.”

There are three ways of be­com­ing a driver at this end of the in­dus­try. You ei­ther rent a car from an op­er­a­tor at R200 a day (R100 in win­ter), or you take a car rent-free and pay the op­er­a­tor 40 per­cent of ev­ery kilo­me­tre you travel. “The prob­lem here,” said Bo­mani, “is you must al­ways find some­one to take home af­ter you make a drop-off.”

If you have your own car, you can rent a taxi per­mit from an ex­ist­ing op­er­a­tor for R1 000 a month.

None of th­ese sys­tems re­quires a test or any back­ground checks. Op­er­a­tors only see their driv­ers when there is a ma­jor prob­lem with the car. Driv­ers pay their rent at the end of each week, an oc­ca­sion they dread. “This morn­ing I was in town, there was noth­ing,” said Rogers. “From there I moved to the ca­ble sta­tion, again noth­ing.”

None of the driv­ers had taken a fare the whole day. It was 3pm, over­cast, and the like­li­hood of their mak­ing any money was slim.

“We all have to save in sum­mer so that we can sur­vive in win­ter,” said Bo­mani.

I asked if they were op­er­at­ing out­side the law and the an­swer was a de­fi­ant “No!” Pi­rates, they ex­plained, do not dis­play the dis­tinc­tive red taxi per­mits. Some car­ried fakes, but they knew who th­ese peo­ple were – Bu­run­di­ans mainly.

“It is true,” said Eric. “My peo­ple are mostly driv­ing the pi­rate taxis here, and they know places in Brook­lyn and Parow where they can get fake per­mits, and fake driv­ing li­cences also. But we are not al­low­ing pi­rates up here. If a pi­rate comes, he is com­pet­ing with us, so we chase him away.”

The taxi driv­ers I spoke to were des­per­ate, but if they knew one lux­ury it was the fact that traf­fic ser­vices and the po­lice never both­ered them.

The prob­lem, it seems, stems from the fact that pi­rates, and in­deed the in­dus­try as a whole, are busiest at night, when there are no traf­fic of­fi­cers avail­able. With droves of tourists ex­pected in the city for the World Cup in less than 300 days, it is worth ask­ing what the gov­ern­ment in­tends do­ing about this.

“Real panic,” is how a lo­cal trans­port ex­pert de­scribed the Depart­ment of Trans­port’s ap­proach to the prob­lem. “They’ve re­alised that no thought has been given to the trans­port in­dus­try most 2010 tourists are likely to utilise.”

A Pre­to­ria trans­port con­sul­tancy was con­tracted to de­velop a last­minute de­vel­op­ment strat­egy, which pro­poses bet­ter reg­u­la­tion, a prop­erly trained and staffed in­spec­torate, im­proved ve­hi­cles with new me­ter spec­i­fi­ca­tions, as well as driv­ers trained and tested on lo­cal knowl­edge, cus­tomer care and reg­u­la­tions – all very well, ex­cept the in­dus­try it­self is yet to be con­sulted.

The staff of the pro­vin­cial traf­fic ser­vices are con­fi­dent that 2010 will be the cat­a­lyst that fi­nally “changes the face of the in­dus­try”.

Kosie Haarhoff, whose man­date it is to ef­fect this change, told me reg­u­la­tions were be­ing pre­pared which would en­able the prov­ince and the city to ad­vance im­proved law en­force­ment plans. From his win­dow he pointed out ve­hi­cles car­ry­ing what he hopes will be the taxi brand of the fu­ture – Smart­tran­sit.

Taxi op­er­a­tors, said Haarhoff, would adopt the brand “be­cause they will find that they are los­ing mar­ket share to th­ese smart-looking ve­hi­cles that carry the pro­vin­cial seal”.

A co-op has ap­par­ently been formed on be­half of the in­dus­try, with an op­er­a­tions base in Paar­den Ei­land, which Haarhoff says will of­fer sup­port ser­vices like cen­tral dis­patch. “Cur­rently there are 127 op­er­a­tors there,” said Haarhoff. “This is what we have al­ready done for the in­dus­try.”

But when I checked this in­for­ma­tion with Safodien his lips tight­ened. “Kosie wants to show you a pair of keys and tell you he has a build­ing,” he said.

In their turn, the heads of Cape Town’s main taxi fleets sug­gest that the Me­tered Taxi As­so­ci­a­tion which Safodien heads is largely in­ef­fec­tual as a po­lit­i­cal body, and that it is they who look af­ter the in­dus­try’s ser­vice stan­dards by pro­vid­ing driver train­ing, by in­sist­ing on let­ters of re­fer­ral from each other when driv­ers change com­pa­nies, even in­sist­ing, in the case of Ex­cite, that all driv­ers are over 35 and mar­ried.

A Me­tered Taxi Ind­aba has been sched­uled for next month (not that any of the bosses know it yet), and al­though it should make for good spec­ta­tor sport, it is doubt­ful whether dis­lo­ca­tions which go back to the 1920s can be mean­ing­fully fused in the time left be­fore 2010.

“Tourists will get where they need to go,” said the man­age­ment of Ex­cite, “but they’re go­ing to be dis­ap­pointed by vari­able ser­vice and abuses. The sys­tem is so open to ex­ploita­tion.

“The big­ger ques­tion is what hap­pens af­ter­wards. Will the will still be there to take this in­dus­try to where it needs to go? We’re in the dark ages, re­ally. It’s a pity.”

PIC­TURE: THEMBA GROOT­BOOM

FAVOURITE HAUNT: Me­tered taxis line up in Ad­der­ley Street, just as they have for decades. Their driv­ers rent the cars and many of them make noth­ing on the av­er­age win­ter’s day.

‘THE EX­TRAOR­DI­NARY POS­TURE OF LAZI­NESS’: Taxi driv­ers in Green­mar­ket Square are of­ten to be found play­ing cards as they while away the idle hours.

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