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
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.”
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.