The poor will pay for taxification of SA as systems rot
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