By Chris Benner
A strike by Johannesburg taxi drivers, which crippled the city for three days in the second week of February, has been settled with an agreement of intent.
Signatories include the major taxi union, political parties, Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and police and traffic officials. The strike shut down the major source of transport between the city centre and the black townships — 15-seater minibus taxis also known as kombis — and resulted in running battles between police and striking drivers, with numerous injuries and at least one confirmed death.
The immediate cause for the taxi drivers arose out of complaints that they were being harassed by police and traffic officials. The protest was also sparked by demands by taxi owners that government provide subsidies for the taxi industry, as it does for the trains and state bus companies. But the strike is a sign of the crisis in the industry, which is hit by a saturated market, dwindling profits, high accident rates and wars over routes.
The entire industry used to be outlawed. In the 1980s, when it became clear that trains and buses could not keep up with the demand, the government legalised it, but without appropriate regulation and support. The lack of regulation in the industry has been the major cause of the crisis, leading to much of the conflict and financial problems.
In addition, there is a great deal of antagonism between drivers and owners. Workers in the industry are largely unorganised, and find it very difficult to call meetings or discuss working conditions.
The South African Taxi Drivers Union (SADTU), provisionally affiliated to COSATU since October, has no office, and the strike itself was largely a spontaneous uprising, without clear demands and without adequate consultation.
After the strike began, COSATU played an important role in bringing about a resolution. COSATU plans to launch a single transport union in May, which would bring SADTU together with the more powerful and more experienced unions likes TGWU (Transport and General Workers Union) and SARHWU (South African Railways and Harbours Workers Union).
The pact that resolved the crisis involves the setting up of a permanent multiparty forum which would include drivers, taxi owners, local authorities and other parties, to discuss all matters affecting traffic and taxi issues in the city. Part of the agreement also included the City Council guaranteeing it would not tolerate victimisation of drivers, and that traffic officials would not stop taxis during peak hours for documentation checks.
[United States-South Africa Sister Community Project via Pegasus.]