Jozi City Feature

The back door to Bree taxi rank

Taxi pic-final online

The back view: A taxi leaves Bree Street taxi rank with posters at the exit reflecting on its window. People are gambling across the street.

They hoot insistently, stop without warning and speed off, leaving havoc and dust in their wake. Taxis are often considered the “outlaws” of the roads ­- yet behind this bravado lies one of the most organised industries in the country, taking in millions of rands annually and recently expanding operations to gain a slice of the airline industry.  Amogelang Mbatha investigates the organised chaos of the Bree Street taxi rank. 

 

Grayscale Bree taxi rank-online

Starting the journey: Taxis leave Bree taxi rank also known as Metro mall, a transport terminal on the northern border of Johannesburg. Up to 500 000 commuters catch taxis in this building every day.

 

It’s hard to pinpoint one particular smell when walking into Bree Street taxi rank. The pungent odour of urine competes with heavy sweat. There is a pervasive stench of herbal medicine.

Exhaust fumes rise as taxis forcefully hoot people out of the way. Perspiring men yell in different directions, Randburg la! One, Randburg la!as they call on passengers to fill waiting taxis.

The deep medicinal smell is that of intelezi – a herbal concoction with a bark-like texture believed to strengthen and protect against ill will and danger. The herb also has a reputation for making the men who use it quite aggressive.

Taxi drivers use intelezi to protect them against accidents on the roads, and against jealousy or feuds that might arise at work. Their business is one plagued by volatile turf wars, killings over poached or threatened profits, street battles for routes, for customers, 24 hours a day. And the journey almost always starts here: at a taxi rank, a terminal where the drivers meet and wait for passengers to board.

The Bree Street rank (on the corner of Bree and Jeppe streets) has myriad players, meeting each other in a daily hustle that’s been going on for well over 40 years.

“Why would anyone want to look into our life?” laughs one of the queue marshals. “We are the most rude and unpleasant people when we want to be.”

The marshal, Sipho Mchunu, is one of the most important ­– and least understood – players in this industry. Mchunu is young, muscular and wears a Nike cap. Behind his intimidating stare and no-nonsense demeanor is a man full of dreams and ambitions. But when he’s at work, he’s all iron-steel on the surface.

“I started out washing taxis and slowly worked my way up. Maybe the people who were supposed to be doing this job were too busy drinking and I got the opportunity,” he says, laughing aloud.

“The biggest challenge is the passengers because they sometimes want to do things their own way and tell me how to do my job. They have more respect for drivers but each and every place has its rules, so I just manage my job,” Mchunu adds.

At any taxi rank, queue marshals are usually the first people passengers speak to before hopping onto a taxi. They can mean the difference between reaching one’s destination and getting into a taxi heading in the opposite direction.

The marshal’s duties at the rank include advising passengers which taxi they can get into to reach a particular destination. They also ensure passengers don’t overtake one another as people wait for the next available taxi to arrive. It’s a place where frustration can easily mount, get out of hand.

taxi washer-online

Shine shine: A female car washer polishes a taxi outside Bree Street taxi rank. In the background a traffic controller directs taxis exiting the rank onto one of the busiest streets in Johannesburg.

 

The taxi industry owns the largest slice of the commuter market. Christmas, Heritage Day and the busy Easter holidays bring no break for those whose bread and butter depends on transporting millions of people to their various events, obligations and destinations.

Taxi culture first came into being in the late 1970s. At the time, the regional train system was the cheapest and most widely used form of transport for blacks living in Johannesburg – but the available routes failed to effectively connect apartheid-era townships with work opportunities in the city and suburbs. Black men working in the transport industry were looking for better profits, and wanted to drive bigger vehicles than the six-seater taxis that were available. They cunningly found an ambiguity in the Road Transportation Act of 1977, enabling them to apply for a road carrier permit as taxis rather than as buses. The only condition the enterprising drivers had to adhere to, to remain within the limits of the law, was to leave one seat of a 10-seater vehicle empty.

Any vehicle carrying 10 or more passengers was deemed a bus by law. This meant the owner had to adhere to more stringent requirements and conditions laid out for the operation of a bus on the roads.

When securing permits legally in the early 1980s became problematic, because of resistance from the national transport commission and the local road transport boards responsible for issuing permits, taxi drivers operated illegally. The consequences for taking such a risk, a defining characteristic of the industry to date, ranged from fines to having their vehicles impounded.

Conflict has been an integral part of the taxi industry and its expansion through the years. In recent years taxi drivers clashed with government when the Department of Transport launched the taxi recapitalisation programme – an intervention to introduce the use of safe and reliable taxi operations through the scrapping of unroadworthy taxis and the use of new taxi vehicles. Taxi owners did not want to change their vehicles and protested against the campaign before taxi industry management secured cooperation after round table meetings with government. Taxi owners were given a R50 000 scrapping allowance which the owner could use as a deposit towards the new taxi vehicle recommended by government.

Another point of conflict arose when the City of Johannesburg’s transport department introduced the Rea Vaya bus rapid transit system (BRT), aimed at improving accessibility and quality of transport in and around the city. Various taxi associations embarked on strike action claiming the implementation of Rea Vaya would erode their profits, and even claiming copyright on specific transport “routes”. When nine people were injured in a drive-by shooting in Soweto shortly after Rea Vaya’s launch in 2010, there was speculation about taxi associations’ involvement in the incident.

For Mchunu and his colleagues, managing this sort of volatility is all in a day’s work. Bree taxi rank has to be kept at just under boiling point, if everything is to go smoothly.

A taxi pulls up into the rank and Mchunu hands the driver a folded piece of paper.

The man stands reading it for a moment, and then shakes his head. Mchunu instructs him to take his taxi out of the line. It’s a disciplinary matter. There’s speculation he didn’t follow the queue marshal’s instructions and refused to load passengers heading to a particular destination as told to by the marshal earlier in the day.

The driver stands in dispute for a while until a group of queue marshals crowd around him. Passengers are directed to other taxis and quickly fill them up. Still, the tension mounts: none of the other taxis can leave until the driver moves his vehicle, which is blocking the exit. The driver, having been told he’ll not be permitted to take a load out on the road, is refusing to budge.

A passenger shouts at Mchunu, asking him what is causing the delay. Frustration is something passengers often have to live with. There are long queues; no seating is provided; and by the time they get a seat in another taxi – after a bit of elbowing fellow passengers trying to cut the line – many are impatient and want to get to their final destination.

A slim woman shoves her head out the window beside her and, in an angry tone, says: “We’ll go to Rea Vaya if you keep treating us like this! Get this man to move his taxi, we want to leave maan.”

It’s a web of conflict: queue marshals argue with taxi drivers who refuse to follow rules. Passengers breathe down the queue marshals’ necks for adequate service, and taxi drivers’ patience with passengers is often thin.

After a few minutes of chastising the driver, the taxi is eventually moved and Mchunu is able to move on to his next load as the taxis exit the rank and head onto the Johannesburg streets for another journey.

The Bree Street taxi rank building is formally known as the Metro Mall. It was opened in 2003 and was built at an estimated cost of R100-million. The three-level building houses some 500 traders, at least 3 000 taxis and sees up to 500 000 commuters daily.

According to principal architect on the project managed by the Johannesburg Development Agency, Ludwig Hansen, challenges faced by taxi drivers and informal traders in Johannesburg were foremost considerations in the design. Functionality for passengers, traders and taxi drivers was an aspect that influenced design decisions as well.

One of the goals for the construction of the Metro Mall traders and transport rank was to reduce the abuse, extortion and forced removals that informal traders had been subjected to in Johannesburg.

Housed next to parking garage floors that smell of petrol and are covered with oil spills from the taxis, Metro Mall’s trading section plays a vital role. People sell vegetables, airtime, clothes and delicacies such as “smiley’s” – a sheep’s head – sheep’s knuckles, and even mogodu (tripe) and pap.

In the terminal section of the Bree taxi rank, Bra Solly sits in a corner clutching a long piece of paper with scribbles on it. It has all the number plates of taxis that are ready to come in for a new load after registering their earnings from the last load.

“I work as a monitor,” the heavyset man explains, seated on a chair with a hi-fi speaker next to him. The speaker isn’t connected to anything and has no sound but it sits on the floor beside him as he points taxis into loading bays

Before a taxi can take up a new load it has to go past a registration point on its way to the loading terminal. Solly keeps tabs on taxis that have done so, and slots them into new routes as they come in.

He ticks off number plates as each taxi arrives and says: “I have been working in the taxi industry for the past 30 years and I make sure there is no conflict in this taxi rank. The taxis that operate here are owned by different associations and drivers. It can cause tension if people just do what they want. So, I make sure ‘yonke into la ihamba ngendlela efanele’ (all operates in an orderly manner) and that people follow the rules.

“If people like me were not here, then taxi drivers would only drive routes that they want and leave other passengers standing all day. People would overtake one another in loading passengers and so on. I work with the taxi drivers to ensure they do their jobs; and if they don’t, they are reported to their associations who will hand down the appropriate discipline,” he explains in a stern but fatherly tone.

Monitors and queue marshals have historically been looked down upon by passengers and even taxi drivers as underachievers compared to the drivers who are actively on the streets, making the money and hustling. The truth is each plays an essential role in a system that will feed, maintain (and frustrate) generations to come.

There aren’t any reliable measures of taxi drivers’ incomes – most are not registered taxpayers, and turnover isn’t formally recorded. However, research conducted by the Community Agency for Social Enquiry (Case) in partnership with the Southern African Labour Research Institute (SALRI) for organisational strategies of informal economic players in South Africa indicates that the nationwide business hauls in billions: the Case and SALRI study used estimates of passenger numbers and calculated that about R11-million a day is collected by taxis nationally; up to R12,6-billion annually.

Research done by bio-economic and political transformation author Meshack Khosa, for his journal article Accumulation and Labour Relations in the Taxi Industry, indicates the taxi industry has also been an important instrument in the survival of the motor industry in South Africa. Vehicle producers Toyota and Nissan were able to shift employees into minibus production to avoid retrenching staff in Durban and Pretoria.

In recent months expansion in the taxi industry has even taken to competition in the skies, as the South African National Taxi Council (Santaco) launched a commercial airline: Santaco Airlines. The airline operates from Lanseria airport in Gauteng, Bhisho in the Eastern Cape, and Cape Town.

A theme that resonated in statements made by management in the council was that the “taxi airline” would go where other service providers in the aviation industry are too afraid to go. Perhaps this is the secret behind the industry’s success over the years.

Taxi drivers work in a space where weakness and fear aren’t welcomed as progressive traits. Risk-taking is encouraged. Going, boldly, where other competitors would hesitate is part of the job description. You need a hard shell, swift reflexes and steady nerves to climb up the ladder. And, when you’re done, there’s always another load of passengers waiting to leave.

 

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About Amogelang Mbatha

Amogelang Mbatha is a journalist based in Johannesburg. She has worked as a reporter and news reader at community radio station, Voice of Wits (VoW 90.5FM). She has written articles for and edited an issue of the Wits journalism programme’s campus newspaper, Vuvuzela, while studying towards a BA honours degree in journalism and media studies in 2011. Amogelang graduated with a BCom finance degree from the same university. She has aspirations to produce and host a financial journalism television show. She hopes the show will deliver rigorous debate based on sound knowledge and understanding of the financial markets and business on a par with international standards.

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