Meet the taxi boss running Durban’s public transport sector
WHEN the Remant Alton bus company stuttered to a halt in July a new company, Tansnat Africa, took over the responsibility of moving Durban people from place to place. It has the complex task of ensuring that the city’s transport needs are met for the next 12-15 months, which includes the World Cup.
Co-owner and director Mandlakapheli Eric Gcaba loves challenges and believes his company will be able to drive the process successfully. Apart from Tansnat Africa and co-ownership in the eThekwini bus services, Gcaba also has one of the most successful long-distance taxi businesses, which ferries people to all parts of the country.
Gcaba is one of the controversial four Gcaba brothers. The stories told about them are enough to chill the blood of even the most street-smart in the townships. Then you meet him and the tales fade into the background as the soft-spoken, designer-suit-wearing man weaves his charm. Gcaba cuts an imposing figure as he walks into the room, not only because of his solid build and his height, which could easily be about two metres – but because he has the bearing of a man who carries authority.
He also has the aura of a man who carries a lot of responsibility. Gcaba has 30 children and three wives. And apparently the wives – who are said to be good friends – are already colluding to get him married a fourth time. Gcaba has fathered 12 children. When his brother Frank died he took on the responsibility of caring for his brother’s 18 children, including a set of twins, who Frank had fathered with 17 women. Gcaba even went as far as adopting 13 of those children, but the others were too young to be taken from their mothers at the time. He says his entire life revolves around his family – he has three homes to maintain in Umhlanga Rocks, and even the cars he drives are all big so that they can carry as many people as possible.
Although he is clearly a man of means, Gcaba says: “In today’s market you only buy what you need. I live by that principle.”
It’s not hard to understand what he means when he says: “I don’t have time for myself.” He describes himself as a traditional man (still a Zulu), and says “even if you have one child you need special powers and you need to pray hard”.
Gcaba, 42, refuses to disclose just how many taxis he owns, but makes it clear he wasn’t always a moneyed man and he started out as a herdboy looking after his father’s cattle.
Although his father, Simon Gcaba, was a very successful taxi boss, when he died he left all his possessions to his five wives. All the children had was the business networks and the family experience to help them on their way.
Mandla Gcaba’s first job after matriculating from Kranskop High in 1984 was at Natal Tanning Extract. He then went on to become a geological assistant at Gold Fields before joining the prison services in the late 1980s. It was in February, 1992, that he joined the family business.
During his time as a prison warder he studied prison management. While recalling his experiences he smiles, saying that at the time he had hoped to become an advocate and even thought that one day he might become a judge.
In 1993 Mandla and his brother Moses bought a truck though the Unitrans owner/driver scheme and by 1996 they had acquired at least 20 trucks – all Mercedes-Benzes.
Then in 1996 Simon Gcaba was killed, changing his son’s life for ever, and he had to sell his business to a company in Potchefstroom.
“The whole ball game changed. I couldn’t run the trucking business like I wanted,” said Gcaba.
The hit that killed his father was not altogether unexpected as the family had been forewarned, but they had expected that his elder brother would be targeted first.
The Gcaba clan went to Nkandla to bury their father on the Sunday after he was killed. When they returned on the Wednesday, all their taxis had been thrown out of the rank. This was a sign that a taxi war had broken out. Gcaba said they called for a meeting with his father’s greatest rival, and it led to several rounds of peace talks and interventions.
Gcaba says while those who loved his father were baying for blood, he wanted peace because his father was a man of peace.
“We are all born in this world to do good; no one is born to do something bad.”
Although they have been accused of fomenting bloodshed, he says that the Gcabas – after much disagreement – opted to talk.
He said they had more than R10 million in assets and therefore more than enough money to hire as many hit squads as they wanted – but they didn’t.
The details from that day onwards are intricate, but when two men stood trial for the death of Gcaba’s father in the Durban High Court, there was a bloodbath at the courthouse. Three people, including a suspect, were killed and several others wounded, and members of the legal fraternity sat in court with bulletproof vests.
Gcaba was initially fingered as the mastermind behind the attack – he claims he was eating Kentucky under a tree on the day it happened and called out to his bodyguards to take him home when they heard bullets whizzing through the air. The charges against him were later dropped.
Throughout the interview he em- phasised that he was a man of peace, not war, and preferred talking to taking up arms. He was appointed a peace ambassador by the KZN Department of Transport in 1996, a position he holds to this day.
Apart from his father, Gcaba has also lost his brother Moses in a taxi-related killing and Frank in a car accident.
On a more personal note there are rumours that the Gcabas and the Zumas, both families from Nkandla, are related. A political analyst says another rumour is that the Gcabas helped President Jacob Zuma dur- ing hard times, but Gcaba refuses to talk about the Zuma factor.
So, what next for the transport boss? He smiles and says that some day he’d like to set his sights on the farming and construction industries. But for now the ardent Orlando Pirates fan is hard at work marketing his other business venture, “Field Ears”, and hoping it’s approved by Fifa. It’s a little portable radio with headphones, approved by MTN, which will ensure that fans attending World Cup matches will be able to hear what’s happening on the field.