COVID-19 and Public Transport – From Crisis to a Crash

Bus services to Cape Town's townships were dysfunctional even before the onset of the pandemic as a result of competition between bus and taxi owners and dithering by the City of Cape Town. All photos by Melissa Bolton

Public transport in South Africa remains a public hazard 26 years into democracy.

Similar to all other areas of public services like healthcare, education, housing – for nearly thirty years South Africa’s public transport system has been in a serious crisis. Typically as in all areas of life in South Africa, it affects black working class people most severely. Due to Apartheid spatial planning, most black people were forced to live on the fringes of cities and far from economic activity and places of work. This impacted negatively on them in a variety of ways including disproportionate spending of income on transport, less leisure time with families and the hazards of commuting in the dark in crime-ridden areas. This was especially bad for women.

South Africa’s democracy has delivered little in terms of public services and instead they have degenerated from crisis to crisis due to mismanagement and corruption by the ruling party with virtually all state-owned enterprises (SOE’s) in financial crisis and/or dysfunctional. The COVID-19 pandemic has brazenly exposed all the country’s socio-economic fault lines and heaped more misery on the lives of the black working class. Our crisis-ridden public transport system has now been placed under severe pressure, being declared as an essential service to keep vital services like food production and distribution and medical care going but at the same time required to adhere to COVID-19 virus prevention protocols.

After the strict Levels 5 and 4 lockdowns, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced on Sunday 12 July that minibus taxis will now be allowed to run at 100% capacity. It appeared to show both the relative weakness of the state and the power of the minibus mass transport industry.

Taxi operators must sanitise the hands of all passengers before allowing them to enter vehicles according to the covid-19 regulations.

It came on the back of a showdown between the government and the minibus taxi industry due to the conditions imposed during the lockdown. In response to the 70% passenger load limitation, the industry demanded a subsidy to compensate for their losses. They argued that they provide a vital daily public transport service for over 75% of South Africa’s workers and commuters but without any government subsidy. Many of them are indebted to the big banks for vehicle loans and are forced to pay huge monthly premiums of approximately R15,000. The government offered them R1-bn which would have meant a once-off payment of R5,000 per taxi. The taxi operators rejected government’s offer and defied the 70% passenger limit and continued with business as usual with 100% passenger loads.

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But what about the workers?

Taxi drivers are among the most exploited workers in South Africa, and among the most vulnerable to covid-19 exposure.

From the outset of the lockdown, government declared transport services as essential. This meant that all transport workers were immediately placed in danger of being infected and potential carriers of the deadly covid-19 virus. While most people were self-isolating at home and not working, they were transporting other essential workers and goods to various destinations. Personal protective equipment (PPE), sanitising and physical distancing between passengers suddenly became their regular work modus-operandi. Many employers were either ill-prepared or slow to respond causing transport workers to refuse dangerous work and demand safety and covid-19 preventative measures.

As the lockdown was eased and many workers were forced to return to work, they had to rely on unsafe public transport. Metrorail was still not functioning and no trains were running, causing a complete reliance on minibus taxis that initially had a 70% passenger load. The reversion to 100% passenger loads makes it impossible to comply with physical distancing of at least 1.5 metres. The 15-million daily commuter trips to work, schools and universities, and those trips to access healthcare or leisure, presents the ideal setting for the rapid spread of the covid-19 virus and an escalation of the pandemic.

Furthermore, an estimated 3-million jobs have been lost in South Africa from January to May this year and more job-losses are to come as the pandemic makes it virtually impossible for many companies to recover. This will mean a big drop in business for the passenger and goods transport sectors and the knock-on effect will be job-losses in the transport sector too. According to Satawu general secretary, Mazibuko Jack, “most of the companies are requesting consultation to reduce the staff in the form of retrenchment; others they want to cut working hours, while others want workers to work on a rotational basis.”

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Minibus taxi-drivers have always been in precarious employment with harsh working conditions and no guaranteed regular income. Many earn as low as R2,000 per month and if they do not meet their minimum daily target of R500, may be instantly dismissed. Most of them don’t enjoy basic legal protections such as unemployment insurance (UIF) let alone medical aid or retirement benefits.

Insert on the working conditions of transport workers under #Lockdown and Covid-19. Produced by Workers’ World Media Productions

The minibus taxi industry provides jobs to about 600,000 people, including drivers, marshals, car washers and traders. A significant number of these jobs will be destroyed by covid-19 conditions and the economic slump, adding to widening poverty and a social catastrophe.

Gauteng Taxi operator, Mamalema Tema, remains optimistic: “It is going to be a bit steep and hard and it’s uphill for the economy to accumulate some businesses they lost and revenues. But what matters most is if lives can be saved and businesses will come around and it cannot be a one day thing but it will slowly pick up.”

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