The poor will pay for tax­i­fi­ca­tion of SA as sys­tems rot

Daily Dispatch - - Opinion - Tom Ea­ton

not of­ten that Fik­ile Mbalula, min­is­ter of trans­port and pa­tron saint of shel­tered em­ploy­ment, gets to an­nounce huge pol­icy de­ci­sions.

At best, he is a sort of talk­ing clock, wheeled out once a year to an­nounce the lat­est death toll on SA’s stag­ger­ingly mur­der­ous roads, and to ex­plain his plan to make them frac­tion­ally less mur­der­ous, which is to ask South Africans to drive a bit bet­ter. At worst, he is, well, the same politi­cian he’s been since he led the ANC Youth League.

On Fri­day, how­ever, Mbalula found him­self at the fore­front of na­tional pol­icy, like a fray­ing teddy bear tied to the bugsplat­tered ra­di­a­tor of a speed­ing dump truck, hap­pily in­sist­ing that the state will be sub­si­dis­ing SA’s taxi in­dus­try by April 2021.

As a brand-build­ing ex­er­cise, it was a tri­umph. Gone were the usual head­lines — “Mbaks is flames as he claps back in celeb twar! ”— as Mbalula found him­self the sub­ject of proper news re­ported by proper jour­nal­ists.

One re­spected news­pa­per went so far as to use a word usu­ally re­served for ac­tual power bro­kers, an­nounc­ing that Mbalula “backs” the sub­sidy, as if he is an el­der states­man and not a swivel-eyed sock-puppet with the grav­i­tas of a Satur­day morn­ing car­toon and the po­lit­i­cal track record of a length of loo pa­per stuck to the heel of power.

Still, I sup­pose even Mbalula has to do min­is­ter-y things from time to time, and it’s pos­si­ble he backed up his po­si­tion by spend­ing 15 min­utes on Google (“What does Bey­oncé think about sub­si­dis­ing SA’s taxi in­dus­try?”) be­fore ask­ing his Twit­ter fol­low­ers to vote on whether he looks more stylish pos­ing in front of a sub­sidised taxi or an un­sub­sidised one.

To be fair, he’s not alone. Prag­ma­tists have been in­sist­ing for years that the taxi in­dus­try needs to be ac­knowl­edged and en­gaged with as a sort of paras­tatal or­gan­i­sa­tion that car­ries out the es­sen­tial work of trans­port­ing SA’s labour force to and from work.

I’ve also seen pun­dits ar­gu­ing that sub­si­dis­ing the in­dus­try, and there­fore for­mal­is­ing it, will bring it and its own­ers into range of the big guns of the SA Rev­enue Ser­vice. I must ad­mit this sounds a lit­tle like pay­ing peo­ple to pay their taxes, but I am not an ex­pert.

Then again, no­body is less of an ex­pert than Mbalula, and I imag­ine he will be grate­ful for any deal that will give him more authority in his deal­ings with the taxi in­dus­try, or at least help him avoid the sort of scenes we saw dur­ing lockdown, when he warned taxi bosses that if they didn’t stop over­fill­ing taxis he would with­hold foot mas­sages for the rest of the day.

Still, there will no doubt be a great deal of un­hap­pi­ness about the idea in the com­ing weeks, not least be­cause of its tim­ing: it seems a strange co­in­ci­dence in­deed that, in the wreck­age of a bro­ken econ­omy, the ANC plans to start fun­nelling for­tunes to taxi bosses a few months be­fore na­tional elec­tions in which it faces a real threat of los­ing big met­ros.

For my part, I’m try­ing to keep an open mind. Taxi bosses don’t seem like ideal bu­reau­crats, but per­haps we’re un­der­es­ti­mat­ing them. Cer­tainly, if they ran SA’s trains cable theft would stop within 48 hours.

In fact, have we con­sid­ered the po­ten­tial of ap­point­ing them to set up and run the new na­tional air­line? Imag­ine how fes­tive it would be for in­ter­na­tional vis­i­tors to be wel­comed aboard Golden Ba­nana Air or Dreamlover In­ter­na­tional by an of­fi­cial gaatjie, who then leans out of an open door all the way back to OR Tambo yelling “Lon­don Wyn­berg Cape Town!” Imag­ine the ex­otic de­lights of land­ing amid the brightly burn­ing car­casses of Bri­tish Airways and Lufthansa air­craft, left there as warn­ings to ri­val air­lines.

It’s fun to dream, but the reality is far grim­mer. Be­cause Mbalula’s plan isn’t a so­lu­tion. It’s un­con­di­tional sur­ren­der. At the weekend the Sun­day Times re­ported that just one in five SA com­muter rail­way lines is func­tion­ing, al­beit er­rat­i­cally.

If four out of five sub­ur­ban streets or na­tional high­ways were phys­i­cally un­us­able there wouldn’t be talk of sub­si­dies, be­cause the min­is­ter of trans­port would be too ter­ri­fied to ap­pear in pub­lic un­til the last of the car-driv­ing mid­dle class had em­i­grated from what would be a failed state.

But the poor can’t em­i­grate, so they pay and pay and pay — half their in­come, on av­er­age — to travel on taxis that cost three times more than trains. And the tax­i­fi­ca­tion of SA gath­ers pace as all the Mbalu­las let sys­tems rust and rot and die, and hard, anony­mous pri­va­teers, flanked by mus­cle and guns, step into the void and name their price. Sorry, I mean “ne­go­ti­ate a sub­sidy”.

Usu­ally Mbaks is used to an­nounc­ing the road death toll, but this time he brought sub­si­dies to SA’s own pri­vate paras­tatal

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