It is 6.30am and traffic is starting to build up. A queue marshal holding a sjambok at Bree Taxi Rank, which takes its name from Bree Street in the centre of Johannesburg, directs and shouts at taxi drivers: “Woza! Ngena, woza baba! (Come, get in).”
Inside the rank, some of the traders have set up their stalls and are settling in to catch the early-bird commuters. Others are in a state of panic, trying to get set up before they start losing business.
This rank is for local trips only and is one of the busiest in Gauteng.
The taxi industry, which connects millions of residents from the periphery to the cities, operates on the margins of public transport. The millions of passengers who take taxis in pursuit of their aspirations and goals place their fate in the hands of taxi drivers.
Bhekizizwe Ncobeni*, 48, is a driver of 15 years who has dedicated his life to transporting commuters. But unlike many of us, his dreams have been delayed while transporting commuters to their destinations.
He and thousands of other taxi drivers across South Africa are among the most exploited and underpaid workers, along with domestic and farm workers.
Reaching for an unmarked brown envelope in the driver’s door of a Toyota Quantum, Ncobeni poses a rhetorical question: “If you multiply R500 by four weeks, how much do I earn?”
The R2 000 a month that Ncobeni earns is way less than his monthly expenses. “I pay rent of R2 500 and I need to buy groceries for my family back home [in Zimbabwe], which is R2 000, and to transport it either via a taxi or bus costs me an extra R500. I, too, need to eat,” Ncobeni explains. “The money we earn is nothing.”
Ntabakazikhonjwa Zungu* is 52 and has been a taxi driver for more than 20 years. He can relate to Ncobeni’s struggle. Every day, he wakes up at around 2.30am to start queuing at the rank for his first trip at 4am.
The father of three says he is still working despite tough labour conditions because his last-born child is still in school. Zungu also earns R500 a week. Both drivers and others say that because taxi drivers earn so little, to survive they rely on what they call imali yesokisi, the extra money a taxi driver makes after reaching the day’s target required by the taxi owner.
The owner has no knowledge of this money, which ranges from around R200 to R300 a day. “If you say you want to wait for the owner to pay you, you will get nothing,” says Ncobeni, adding that every day he has to give the taxi owner R500. This means that petrol, per diems and other costs remain his responsibility.
Ncobeni explains that to earn enough to survive, taxi drivers look for innovative ways to maximise imali yesokisi by swiping passengers from other taxis going to different destinations.
In Gauteng, an estimate of more than 1 000 taxis are said to be bought monthly, leading to a high volume of minibuses on the same routes. Because of this, Zungu says, imali yesokisi has decreased drastically, forcing drivers to live even more hand-to-mouth.
“When you see us being naughty and chaotic on the road as if we own the road, it is because of these pressures. If you do not do these things, at the end of the day you will end up with nothing,” says Ncobeni.
Taxi drivers say one of the contributing factors to them breaking the rules of the road is that minibus taxis don’t have a dedicated lane, making it extremely difficult to work during peak traffic hours. If metro police officers stop them while driving in the emergency lane or the Rea Vaya bus lanes in Johannesburg, they are fined R500. The hefty fine has to be paid from the taxi driver’s pocket.
“Driving of minibus taxis in Johannesburg is very stressful,” says occupational therapist Dr Lee Randall, who has studied the taxi industry extensively.
“Research with bus and truck drivers has found that the combination of high pressure and low control – especially when drivers must adhere to a schedule and when traffic conditions are unpleasant – is associated with mental health risks, and the same is likely to apply to minibus taxi drivers,” says Randall.
History and the informal economy
There are over 200 000 minibuses in South Africa, transporting more than 15 million commuters each day. The industry is estimated to generate annual profits of at least R90 billion. Taxis are considered the pillar of public transport, accounting for 65%, followed by buses at 20% and trains at 15%.
The taxi industry emerged in the aftermath of the brutal forced removal of black people from the cities by the apartheid state. At first, the industry operated under severe state regulation, when it was still struggling to be recognised as a form of public transport, explains Siyabulela Fobosi, a public transport researcher.
The industry began thriving in 1987 after deregulation and is now said to have a direct and indirect impact on the informal economy. National Taxi Alliance spokesperson Theo Malele says the industry has provided employment to about 600 000 people. The taxi drivers, queue marshals who earn R300 a week, car washers and informal traders are some of those employed directly and indirectly in the industry.
Inside the Bree rank and its dark corridors, life goes on at full blast. A couple of hundred people arrive daily to run their businesses and maintain a livelihood. Nandi Buthelezi, 53, a vendor at the rank, says she wakes up at 2.45am every day to arrive by 4am to sell porridge, Jungle Oats and cereal to commuters.
Patience Nomonde, 58, affectionately known as Madijo (the mother of food), is from Orange Farm, about 45km from Johannesburg. She became a vendor in 1992 and runs a restaurant selling pap and meat.
“This is like our company or a firm. That’s why we wake up every day to come and sell at the taxi rank. You cannot afford to miss a day, if you do not wake up for work you will not benefit, ya understanda? … We have raised and educated our children, and also built homes [through this work],” says Madijo.
However, business has declined over the years. Initially, the City of Johannesburg moved them from trading on the streets to operating inside the taxi rank. Buthelezi says they were told that no trading would happen outside the rank. But over time, more and more street traders without vending permits have arrived, setting up in the busiest spots within the rank.
This has had a negative impact on traders such as Buthelezi, Madijo and others with vending permits to operate inside the rank and, as such, rental obligations to the City. Many have defaulted on their R450 monthly rent and now live in fear of being evicted.
“Yesterday we were asking ourselves how are we going to travel back to our homes, because we don’t have money,” says Buthelezi. Madijo weighs in: “I left for home late, around 7.10pm, as I was waiting for at least one more customer to come in so that I’d be able to get a taxi fare. Looking at the taxis that this rank has and the number of passengers, for a bystander to learn that we are not making profits would be a shock.”
Madijo says they’d love government to intervene, to invest and empower them. “I did not dream of being a vendor for the rest of my life. I imagined that one day I will be owning a restaurant or working as a director of a restaurant. But now I am stuck. We want growth in this business.”
Part of the reason traders like Buthelezi and Madijo are struggling to get enough customers is because they’ve been allocated vending stalls that are out of sight in the rank.
“The place was built, but they never sat down with us to ask, ‘Where would you like the kitchen to be?’ They just went on to build without our involvement,” Madijo says. “This building does not accommodate our customers. We are behind the passages.”
Although they appreciate having a structure and not being exposed to torrential rain and heavy wind, if the government had consulted them during the architectural design of the stalls, things would have been better, they say.
Despite consistent economic growth brought by the taxi industry over the years, it remains characterised by appalling labour relations.
Randall says that from her experience as an occupational therapist, the working conditions of taxi drivers are among the worst she has encountered. They’re subjected to “long working hours, relatively poor earnings and a widespread (or even universal) lack of very basic safety nets like [the Unemployment Insurance Fund] and Compensation Fund cover. Things like medical aid, funeral insurance, pension or provident funds and even basic paid leave of any type seem to be unheard of luxuries for the average taxi driver,” explains Randall.
The sectoral determinations that the Department of Employment and Labour issued for the period 1 October 2017 to 30 June 2018 declare that taxi drivers must earn at least a minimum of R787.73 a week, or R16.41 an hour, which is below the R20 national minimum wage.
“Not many of the taxi drivers in my study were aware that there is a sectoral determination for the taxi sector, setting out the minimum amount they must be paid and the maximum number of hours they should have to work per week – right down to stipulating night-shift allowances and overtime pay rates,” says Randall.
Malele says that as taxi operators they “want to be seen to be complying with the sectoral determination of the department of employment”, but as an industry they face challenges.
For Malele, not all routes are lucrative and the costs of operating a taxi, such as bank loan instalments, maintenance and wages for drivers and queue marshalls, are high. Beyond this, not having state subsidies makes it difficult to comply with the minimum wage and extend certain benefits to drivers.
Zungu opposes this. “Taxi owners don’t like being taxed, they will see it as a loss. We need to register working hours. If you worked hard, you must earn a living wage, not isokisi because we will be accused of stealing,” Zungu says.
South African National Taxi Council Gauteng spokesperson Midday Mali says: “We are trying to comply with [the Labour Relations Act] and we also want drivers to understand their rights. The biggest challenge is that most of the drivers are not happy to sign contracts, they deem them as binding too much.
“For [taxi drivers] to sign and [for us as taxi owners to] comply as an industry will help them to understand their benefits … We are trying to make ways and means to bring our drivers closer, the Gauteng MEC of road and transport Jacob Mamabolo is also coming to help how can we best regulate the industry.”
Unfair working conditions
Some drivers work seven days a week. Zungu says that he can hardly watch television without falling asleep because of fatigue.
“It is important that taxi drivers get enough time to rest and not be overworked, so that they are not tired when driving taxis. The work of the taxi drivers is intrinsically linked to the travelling experiences of commuters. The possible longer-term consequences when the taxi drivers are overworked is continued dissatisfaction with the work itself,” Fobosi says.
If a taxi driver needs to take a day off, that driver has the responsibility to find a replacement driver in their absence. Or if the taxi owner has a lot of minibuses, a standby driver will be hired to take over. But for the main driver intending to take leave, it will be unpaid.
Randall says the Department of Transport and the Department of Employment and Labour are the ones mostly implicated in relation to the poor working conditions of taxi drivers.
“The latter seems to be turning a blind eye to blatant labour law violations. During my literature search, for instance, I found no evidence that inspections or raids on taxi association offices are carried out to check that drivers are properly employed, and many of the drivers in my study noted that labour inspectors at ranks and on the roads should check on whether the taxi owners are providing job contracts, payslips and other basic legal requirements,” says Randall.
To correct this, Fobosi says, “The Department of Employment and Labour should have labour inspectors enforcing labour regulations in the taxi ranks and ensure compliance with the sectoral determination for the taxi sector. All taxi owners should ensure that employees have contracts of employment and that fair labour practices are enforced.”
The department did not respond to questions about its role in ensuring fair labour practices within the industry. The Department of Transport also did not respond to numerous requests.
Malele says there is talk in the National Taxi Alliance of transforming and improving the labour conditions of drivers. “Modernisation of the industry has agreed to professionalise this business and look at the interest of labour practices. Our service levels will improve, [including] communication skills, and being able to treat taxi drivers as human beings,” he says.
However, for Randall, “work conditions and the industry as a whole have deteriorated rather than improved over the past couple of decades. Thus, it has moved further away from professionalising even though there’s widespread acceptance that it needs to become more professionalised.”
No job security
Beyond the precarious working conditions, taxi drivers’ jobs are generally uncertain. “Owners dismiss anyhow. Sometimes it depends on what you have done. For example, if you failed to reach the target because of traffic and you give the owner R300 instead of R500, he will insist that I took his money and you wouldn’t be given a chance as a driver to explain what happened. He will say I must leave the keys and the taxi. Just like that, you’re fired.
“Another employer will fire you for being involved in an accident. However, sometimes the car gets broken and when it comes back from the panel beaters, it’d come with a different driver. You’d only know that you’ve been fired when your colleagues ask where are you because they see your car in the taxi rank. Rights for taxi drivers do not exist. We are oppressed by the owners of the cars and they treat us as their slaves,” says Ncobeni.
Fobosi says the reason taxi owners do not warm up to the idea of regulation is to avoid complying with fair labour practices, a view shared by taxi drivers.
Gatekeeping in the industry
For Zungu, in the taxi industry, owning a taxi as a driver means empowerment. Malele echoes this sentiment, saying that taxi drivers with more than 10 years of experience are promoted or eligible to become taxi owners, depending on their conduct during the period when they were drivers.
However, drivers lament the stringent gatekeeping of the taxi associations. In their association, one is not allowed to own a taxi and be a driver at the same time.
Nonkozo Ndamase*, 60, who has been a driver for more than 30 years, says there was a time in her association when the longest-serving drivers demanded to be promoted and acquire the rights to be owners. The association allegedly said the work was reserved for children of owners. To challenge this, the drivers organised a small protest and were all dismissed, says Ndamase.
Ndamase has had her own struggles in breaking through the industry, from a taxi driver to a legally operating taxi owner. When she tries telling her story, her eyes get glassy with tears.
After dedicating three decades of her life to being a driver, when she tried to empower herself by taking ownership of a minibus taxi, she was denied. It was an unfathomable and irreconcilable betrayal, Ndamase says.
To operate her first minibus, she had to khwapha or conceal herself as the owner by operating under someone else’s name, usually a familiar taxi owner in an association. This taxi was damaged in an accident. She had to operate in a similar manner with her second minibus taxi, which was later stolen.
If ukhwaphile, Ndamase says, “You cannot even speak out if there is anything wrong. You need to be silent at all times.”
Recently, Ndamase managed to buy a new Toyota Quantum with a loan. “I approached one of the owners in the association that I work for. He said, ‘MaNdamase, you have been with the association for years, there is no other association you need to approach other than that of ours if you want your car to operate’,” she says.
However, her taxi only operated for a month before they said they “cannot have a driver’s car operate in our association”. As a result, she struggled to pay off the R15 000 monthly instalments because her taxi couldn’t get regular trips. This forced her to supplement the repayments with her own income.
“Owners have created a monopoly, only their cars must work. The way these men are so corrupt, I have realised in our association they don’t want a driver to be part of the association. And they are adamant about that,” Ndamase says, adding that being a woman driver and aspiring taxi owner in a male-dominated industry has added to her struggle to gain access to the industry.
Silencing of dissenting voices
For Ndamase, collective action within the industry is impossible. “When you speak out, they will find a way to dismiss you. When the drivers hold a meeting discussing crucial issues, the owner will be calling you, telling you not to be a part of that. In the industry there are a lot of family ties, nephews of the owners and brothers, all of that. So there is nothing really that you can do because they ask, ‘Who was speaking?’ And when you speak out, you are gone. Many, I know, have died in front of me.”
Taxi drivers’ overlapping dilemmas are akin to being asked to cross a river of dirty water, with too many potential enemies and crocodiles.
It is just too delicate and dangerous, either to challenge the status quo or even to organise. “Joining a union is virtually impossible, both because they have such informal job arrangements, being paid in cash rather than via salary transfers, and because they work in isolation and they have a realistic fear of violent repercussions if they object to their work conditions,” says Randall.
Looking at all the things that need to be fixed in the taxi industry, Ndamase says: “I doubt that this industry will ever change. The people that work in the industry are stubborn and difficult.”
*Some taxi drivers spoke to New Frame on the basis of anonymity and others’ identities have been concealed to protect them from possible threats to their lives.