Sho’t Left solution for hard-pressed national Treasury

The taxi industry flexed its muscles on Monday and Gauteng, the country’s economic heartland, immediately took the hit. People arrived late for work – whether they were on board taxis or stuck behind them. Some didn’t even make it.

The protest was done and dusted that day – just to remind the government of what lies in wait if the taxi bosses don’t get their way. What they want is more than the R1,135-billion being offered as compensation for the loss of earnings during lockdown. It works out to R5 000 a taxi, which owners say isn’t enough. They want R20 000.

For an industry that is resolutely unregulated and often downright lawless, known neither for the tax submissions of its owners nor the PAYE and UIF payments for its drivers and jump boys it’s a bit cocky. After all, if taxis can get compensated what about the other grey industries; sex workers? Informal traders? Taverners?

The taxi industry might be unregulated, but it’s highly self-regulated – just ask anyone who has ever tried to operate a route without the necessary permissions. In Gauteng, the associations are so powerful that metropolitan bus rapid transport systems operate in tandem with them, they have never replaced them. In fact, many taxi drivers regard the red painted devil’s teeth bus lanes that run through the centre of Johannesburg and Pretoria as their own preserve to be shared with the buses, when they’re not dragging lawyers under their wheels – literally.

So, we have an industry that is a law unto itself, that is immensely powerful – and a transport minister who is the dictionary definition of inept. What could possibly go wrong?

But, before we guffaw at the absurdity of it all, why shouldn’t the taxi industry be bailed out? Even if all their demands were met, the cost would be a fraction of the billions to be poured into a national airline that at best serves the interests of the upper middle class and at worst is a free air ferry for politicians.

If SAA doesn’t fly, no one notices – not even the politicians who sent the kids back to school while staying home to attend committee meetings by Zoom. If the taxi industry stops, everyone feels it, everywhere.

Mr Fixit aka Fearfokkol, Fikile Mbalula, couldn’t be Minister Flip Flop this week, because this wasn’t about fiddling the COVID 19 regulations to pack taxis like sardine cans (which many of them are doing in spite of him in any case). He literally doesn’t have the dosh to dish out.

But then again neither do we. South Africa’s 21st Century version of Job, Tito Mboweni, spelt out the harsh fiscal reality this week. The jaws of the hippopotamus need to be closed. Maybe the way to do that is to get the taxi industry on side, help them out and then get them to start paying taxes.

At the same time, we can plug the holes in the bucket by grounding the fantasy vanity project that is SAA. Call it a sho’t left solution for our hard-pressed treasury.

Originally published on 27 June 2020 in the Saturday Star