South Africa: Shootings and revenge killings in latest ‘taxi war’ attacks
The South African legislative capital of Cape Town has been racked by shootings and conflicts between taxi drivers since July 5, leaving taxis at a standstill, complicating daily journeys for commuters and putting the city on edge. Disputes between taxi companies are nothing new in South Africa, where a "taxi war" over the past several decades has resulted from longstanding rivalries and competition over lucrative routes.
Videos shared on social networks show mayhem at numerous taxi stations in several cities around South Africa since July 1. The taxis involved in the conflict are minibuses that take commuters on designated routes between cities and suburbs. The violence has been particularly severe in Cape Town, where at least seven people were killed and several others injured in separate, taxi-related shootings in various neighbourhoods on Wednesday, July 7.
A video shows people fleeing the scene of one of these shootings near the taxi rank in Bellville, a suburb on the outskirts of Cape Town.
Bellville taxi rank shooting is getting out of control. pic.twitter.com/tdL1RS1epF— I'm not your friend (@AnonymousSA__) July 7, 2021
The source of the clashes is a feud between two rival taxi associations, Cape Amalgamated Taxi Association (CATA) and Congress of Democratic Taxi Associations (CODETA), which operate in the Western Cape Province.
The week of conflict in Cape Town began at the taxi rank in Bellville on Monday, July 5. A group of unknown gunmen arrived and opened fire, injuring four people. According to CODETA spokesperson Andile Khanyi, contacted by the FRANCE 24 Observers team, two of their drivers were killed in this shooting. The other two wounded have not been identified.
According to Khanyi, this week’s killings originated over the route between Bellville and Paarl – a town around 40km to the east – which CATA and CODETA disputed back in September 2020. They reached an agreement where CATA would operate the road in one direction, and CODETA in the other. However, there were reports of some taxis carrying passengers in both directions, re-inflaming tensions.
The following shootings are thought to be revenge killings and escalations following the first incident in Bellville and longstanding feuds between taxi operators competing for routes. A spokesperson from CATA also contacted by our team condemned the violence and said that eight of their drivers were killed in the clashes that followed on Wednesday.
‘It’s a fight for dominance’
Taxi rivalries have sparked a guerrilla war that has been going on for decades in South Africa, after the deregulation of the taxi industry in 1987 made the field informal and at the mercy of corruption and competition.
Competition is fierce for transport providers, and some taxi owners and operators often try to “poach” lucrative routes that are controlled by others. Taxi associations regularly fight for control of high-paying routes with plenty of passengers.
Geoff Mamputa is an independent mediator who has been working on the taxi conflicts in the Western Cape province for years. He says the escalation of violence stems from an influx of people into urban areas and insufficient regulation of the growing taxi industry.
In the past 10 years or so there’s been quite a big influx of people coming from other parts of the country into the Western Cape. With Covid-19 especially, a lot of people are moving into the city for opportunities. With new routes, different organisations, like CATA and CODETA, are fighting for dominance of those areas. You find that the first group to move into an area establishes an informal rank there. And as the area grows, the other taxi association will want to have a bite of that market. That’s where the conflicts happen. On a simple basis, it’s a fight for dominance.
On the other hand, there are no barriers in this industry as such. Unlike when you open a shop and have to get permits and a building, here if you can drive and you have access to some kind of vehicle, you can start a taxi business. And a lot of people lost their jobs during the recession and Covid, so they moved into the industry, they bought taxis. It’s getting saturated and there’s competition for clients and commuters.
The government issues permits for certain routes to taxi drivers, based on agreements with the taxi associations, in an attempt to regulate which associations’ drivers can operate on which circuits. However, according to Mamputa, officials can’t keep up with rapid evolutions in routes and demands.
‘It’s a free for all’
People just move in, local authorities have to take part of the blame, at least, for not moving at the same rate the industry is moving. The environment is shifting at a faster speed than bureaucracy can keep up with, which leaves gaps to be exploited by the taxi industry. This leads to the violence because on some of the routes, nobody can claim to have the authority to use those routes, because the local authorities have not yet assessed and given permits. So it’s a free-for-all situation.
‘The techniques are not very different from the mafia’
Since the start of 2021, 71 people have been killed in Western Cape province over taxi-related conflicts. While the perpetrators have not been identified, these types of killings often unfairly target drivers, who are not involved in negotiations and agreements over route ownership, Khanyi says. The conflicts have proven to be dangerous for transport users as well, as gunmen have not hesitated to attack taxis even while they are carrying passengers.
According to Mamputa, taxi organisations have earned a bad reputation after decades of violent conflict:
Within the industry, shootings are not seen as extreme. It’s an extremely violent industry. It a multi-billion rand industry. Some people are beginning to doubt whether it’s now an industry to a crime syndicate, because the techniques are not very different from the mafia. There are elements of extortion.
Commuters stranded by the conflicts
An estimated 15 million people a day, or more than 60 percent of all public transport users, depend on these taxis in South Africa, preferred over buses and trains because of their availability and efficiency. Stoppages after attacks leave countless commuters stranded without transport, as entire taxi ranks shut down.
On Wednesday, July 7, following the series of attacks, CATA stopped all taxi operations in Cape Town. CODETA followed suit on Wednesday evening. While some taxi routes operated by other associations and independent drivers remained in service, commuters spent the day scrambling to find a way between their home and workplace.
On July 8, an emergency meeting was held with law enforcement and transport agencies. Facing threats of sanctions from the provincial Transport Ministry, both CATA and CODETA taxi associations reached an agreement for a ceasefire and began providing transport services again on July 9. They have asked for police and law enforcement to remain present at ranks and along taxi routes in the case of further violence.