by Oct 3, 2023All Articles, Amandla 89

Khayelitsha Township with Table Mountain in the background. Apartheid spatial design put poor black people furthest out of town, away from the industrial areas. And this is still the reality today. Hence the need to subsidise public transport.

PUBLIC TRANSPORT IS ESSENTIAL to ensure people’s mobility so that they can travel for leisure and for work purposes. Apartheid spatial design put poor black people furthest out of town, away from the industrial areas. And this is still the reality today. Hence the need to subsidise public transport, as a way to undo the costs associated with that apartheid spatial design. The way to fund this is through taxes so that those who designed, supported and benefited from apartheid contribute to undoing the prejudice from its continuing legacy.

Transport challenges today have a disproportionate impact on poor, mainly black communities. This is because of the manner in which wealth is distributed in our society. Public services to the poor are underfunded, while the wealthy have private transport and other private services. And they get tax cuts for that private transport, which contributes further to the decline in public services through underfunding.

In 1994 there was a relatively functional train and bus service, with taxis emerging to transport commuters from newly established residential areas that were often informal and neglected by the apartheid state. So the industries emerged completely separately and without much coordination. Amongst the most urgent public transport challenges is the need to regulate the industry effectively, so commuters have a seamless service from point of departure to destination.

The ongoing struggles around public transport have to be mindful of the needs of workers as the priority customers for the mobility strategy. But they also need to consider the role that the workers in the transport sector play in delivering this service, and the conditions of employment in the industry. This transport policy should be directed and co-created by the unions in the sector. If we are not part of the solution, then we should not be surprised if the solution excludes consideration of us.


The freight traIn situation has seen the country unable to get raw materials from pit to port. This significantly constrains the growth of the South African economy, so that the industry missed a commodity boom. This is because of a shortage of wagons and locomotives, as well as structural looting of the infrastructure.

The level of malfunction in the system is in large part due to looting of infrastructure by criminal networks and mismanagement by corrupt senior employees and some board members.

For example, equipment has been purchased that does not have maintenance agreements, so many of the locomotives are now not functional due to non-availability of spare parts.

The Department of Transport’s response to the crisis in rail is to auction off lines to the private sector, as the Treasury is not making funds available to pay for additional capacity and upgrades. This is a sad indictment on government. The freight rail system was functional 20 years ago, and now the best response they have is to privatise it piece by piece. This is also contrary to ANC policy of nationalising the commanding heights of the economy, to empower a developmental state, to undo the concentration of ownership from apartheid times.


The passenger train service under Prasa has also declined in the last 20 years. This has seen the levels of overcrowding reaching 100 percent on the train services, around 2006. So there is a clear demand for rail-based transport services, given the high cost of other forms of transport.

By 2020, the looting and corruption in the system had all but destroyed the capacity. The looting is both petty and criminal syndicates destroying the infrastructure, whilst the corruption is as a direct result of senior employees and some board members.

The big outstanding question is the burning of trains. This benefits no one except the taxi owners, who get more customers when the rail system is not working. Altogether, Prasa, SAPS and the intelligence services are no closer to identifying the culprits, and consequently are unable to prevent the destruction of the system. The constant desire to buy new trains at great cost boggles the mind, as it only benefits the procurement officer, who may get kickbacks from new purchases.

By contrast, countries like India run fairly dated carriages, while focusing on affordable, reliable public transport.

The buses

In Cape Town, the bus capacity sees fairly reliable services running in most of the established areas of the Cape Flats, even though they are very overcrowded. This service is provided by Golden Arrow, which is now owned by HCI (a union investment company). The company gets a subsidy from government to run the service.

The My City buses have rolled out in the wealthier areas first, along the west coast around Blouberg coastal town up to Atlantis, even though the greatest need exists on the Cape Flats. There are also virtually empty buses running from the airport on a daily basis, but the City won’t deploy these buses to the Cape Flats which needs them.

The priorities for rolling out services should be based on the most urgent need, not on the political party payback for people’s votes. The My City buses need to be rolled out to all areas requiring more transport on an urgent basis.

Private cars

Private car transport is available to a privileged group of people who can afford motor vehicles. Yet the amount of money that is spent on building new roads and repairing roads in the City of Cape Town far exceeds the amount of money allocated to fixing public transport.

For all the key reasons, from global warming to effective public transport, we should be moving away from road-based, private vehicle transport.

The taxis and the strike

The taxi situation is the one requiring the most urgent attention, given that it transports the majority of people on the Cape Flats. Reckless taxi drivers in unroadworthy vehicles are a menace to other road users and lead to the injury and deaths of many passengers. The conditions of employment in the industry see taxi drivers having to speed to make up their payment portion for the day.

The taxi bosses are known as a power unto themselves, and we need clear national guidelines to regulate the industry. The most recent taxi strike in Cape Town has demonstrated how unable the role players in the industry are to regulate matters. In this case, the conflict between the City and the taxi bosses over petty crimes has led to deaths and huge losses for the economy. People had to walk up to 30 kilometres to get home when the strike was called in the middle of the day.

So the people who suffered most from the strike were the commuters who depend on the taxis. Cape Town City Council should be accountable to the people of Cape Town. They should not recklessly endanger them by provoking a strike that results in hardships for more than a million commuters. The hardship of no transport is compounded by criminal elements that see a strike as an opportunity to prey on vulnerable people. So we saw stonings and lootings under the cover of the strike.

The Mayor and the mayoral committee member for safety and security, JP Smith, who provoked the strike, all live close to the city. They have car allowances from the City, so they do not feel people’s pain about public transport.

During the strike,  JP Smith said that he will impound 25 taxis for every council vehicle damaged. This was reckless and inflammatory and directly contributed to the loss of life and damage during the strike. Much of the damage was actually caused by criminal elements not related to the taxi industry. The Mayor then tried to cover up for JP Smith by claiming that he only said that they will impound taxis directly linked to the violence. This was not true

The Human Rights Commission should investigate the conduct of JP Smith and the Mayor in the lead-up to and during the strike. Their conduct directly contributed to the endangering of Capetonians and they should be censured. The Mayor should also be prohibited from provoking a strike without reporting issues to the full Council and the National Minister. 

Solving the ongoing taxi crisis

Public transport needs to be depoliticised and brought under national government regulation. And its ownership structure needs to change. Two key changes are required to make a significant difference.

Firstly, the ownership model, which creates these taxi bosses who are a law unto themselves, needs to change. The best model to work on would be either to have owner-drivers or taxi cooperatives.

The second change would be to the way the drivers are paid. If they were paid a salary for working, like bus drivers, instead of per trip, there would be no incentive to break traffic laws and endanger passengers and the public by racing for another load.

In short, the industry needs structural change.

Tony Ehrenreich is Cosatu’s Deputy Parliamentary Coordinator.


People walking home from town along the N2 during the Cape Town taxi strike. Cape Town City Council should be accountable to the people of Cape Town. They should not recklessly endanger them by provoking a strike that results in hardships for more than a million commuters.

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