Taxis of Cape Town

The Cape Argus, August 22, 2009

By Sean Christie

Not long ago I was taking exercise of Tafelberg Road when I sensed I was being followed. I turned to find a Mazda Midge crunching along behind me in semi-stall—a tail which stopped and started when I did, causing me to forget my highveld-forged instinct for self-preservation and bang on its bonnet.
A head emerged from the driver’s side.


As I watched the (roundly disabused) driver continue along the road to harass a pair of joggers ahead of me, another taxi filled in behind. The sun was setting and I was cast in the vehicle’s headlights like the proverbial rabbit.

Now, anyone familiar with the human ecology of Tafelberg Road would wonder, as did I, what had happened to cause these taxi drivers, who normally await tourist fares in an orderly line by the cable station, to pursue such unlikely quarry as joggers and pleasure walkers? Then it occurred to me that amongst all the three years hooplah about transportation reform I hadn’t heard a singular utterance on metered taxis. What, I wondered, in a now familiar access of civic pride, will the tourists think come 2010?

In pursuing a better understanding of this little known industry it soon became clear that, broadly defined, the cabbie trade in Cape Town is much older than most people think. In its first one and half centuries, transportation in Cape Town would have been the unremunerated industry of slaves, many of them Malay. It is no coincidence that the disappearance of the sedan chair—a box for a single human passenger carried on poles by two unfortunates—coincided with emancipation in the 1830’s. A neater origin for the modern taxicab, both in terms of its enduring characteristics and etymology, is the appearance of the first hansom cab in 1849. The two-wheeled Hansom safety cab was designed by New York architect Joseph Hansom, who gave the conveyance his name and added the noun Cab, short for cabriolet, from the French cabrioler, “to caper”. In his collectable Grow Lovely, Growing Old, Lawrence Green claimed that, by 1960, ‘there were sixty hansoms in Adderley Street, plying without a fixed tariff’. In the rarer Hansom Cabs and Fish Horns, Eric Rosenthal describes Cape Town’s first ever system of cabbie regulation. ‘Municipal by-laws laid down cab fares, passengers being allowed to calculate these on two different systems: “By time… 2/6d. for one hour”’ and by calculated distance: ‘“For conveying two persons within half-a-mile 6d., within one mile 1/- and at the rate of 1/- per mile for any further distance”’.

Auguring the current trend of Smart Cars and ss, Hansoms quickly became popular with Victorian Capetonians for their ability to manoeuvre around traffic jams. Attitudes towards the drivers, however, were more ambivalent. In 1894, on the eve of the introduction of electric trams, The Cape Argus wrote that, ‘Jarvey is a very decent sort of fellow, though an arch extortioner’. Ten years earlier William Clark Russell had marked, in his Voyage to the Cape, ‘the extraordinary posture of laziness into which the (hansom cab) drivers contrive to sink, while their horses are standing still.’

The 1920s emerge, from the cape archives, as a particularly chaotic time for public transport—the first horseless carriage had appeared in 1897, as had electric trams, and from 1908 motor taxicabs carrying clockwork taximeters had been plying for hire alongside motor taxi-cycles, hansoms and landaus. Drivers of all, it seems, made their living off the docks—many by conveying sailors to and from brothels. Of the six men who lost their cab licenses in 1924, for example, four were considered to be ‘associates of prostitutes and pimps’.

84 year old George Todd of Marine Taxis explained to me how, in the 50s when he started his well known business, the metered taxi industry was still very much tied to the ocean. ‘Back then we depended on the Union Castle Mailships, of which there were frequently two in port. Then in 1956 we had the Suez Crisis and that meant shipping had to once again come around the cape, the same in 1967 with the Israeli war—it was during these times that the industry grew and developed.’

In the 1970s South Africa’s pariah status with the west resulted in the government pursuing warm relations with Japan, whose fishermen were permitted to use Cape Town’s port as a base for servicing a worldwide demand for sushi. According to Sugar Girls and Seamen author Henry Trotter, Cape Town’s adaptable cabbies ‘started to learn the basics of Japanese, Taiwanese, Korean and Indonesian…The smarter ones realised early on that by bridging the linguistic and cultural barriers between themselves and the seamen, they could corner whole ethnic markets.’

Old industry hands remember the period from 70s to the 90s as a golden era, in which the fishermen had deep pockets and dockside security was porous, encouraging criminal predilections. ‘Before the new government many of the drivers were smuggling out of those docks,’ recalls the owner of Taxis, who prefers not to be named. ‘Huge fish like tuna tunny. and stuff. I myself saw guys smuggling bloody guns out of those docks. Guns my bru, out of Russian containers.’

The authorities, by all accounts, nevertheless kept a tight regulatory rein on the industry. Abubaker Safodien believes the Apartheid government, ‘had a cab system which was a good system, an excellent system. Come 1994 everyone comes in applying for permits to carry tourists, courtesy vehicles and what. Avis, Alwierda and so on have been coming in to the industry and they are killing us.How can they expect the metered taxi man with his little tjorrie to compete with courtesy buses and so on, who are not even supposed to be charging for their services?’

Here Safodien vocalises one of the modern industry’s two great complaints—the
perception that hotels prefer that their guests use tour operators and hire car services instead of metered taxis, and that many of these are in fact not properly permitted to conduct tourists from a. to b.—a problem which is admitted in a strategy document recently commissioned by the Department of Transport.
The PR heads of luxury hotels like The Cape Grace and Sol Kerzner’s The One & Only counter that service standards in the metered taxi industry are too variable to be depended upon, which raises the metered taxi industry’s other major gripe—the hypertrophic spread of pirate and second rate taxis driven by northerly Africans.
‘It is bad for us,’ is the opinion of Excite’s management. ‘Why? They don’t run good cars, they don’t know where places are, they maybe don’t even have driver’s licenses, and they overcharge—it’s easy to take a meter and programme it with two tariffs, the first k for R8, and the next for R20, R30—the cops never check. But the problem is really government, because there’s been no changes to the regulations in 15 years. No regulation, no law enforcement, that’s how it works.’

Hoping to view this situation from the other side I headed for Tafelberg Road again, to the base of Platteklip Gorge, where I found six shabby-looking taxis parked in a crooked line, the drivers echoing Clark Russell’s comment about ‘extraordinary postures of laziness…’. I explained my mission and soon all the drivers—Bomani and Rogers from Malawi, Hilary from Zimbabwe, Desire from the DRC, John from Brazzaville and Eric from Burundi, were crammed in and around Bomani’s Toyota Tazz.

‘It doesn’t matter if you have a foreign driver’s license,’ explained Desire, ‘you can still drive a taxi. We know it is not legal but the traffic cops never check. They only check taxi permit and PDP (Public Drivers Permit).’

There are three ways of becoming a driver at this end of the industry—you either rent a car from an operator at R200 per day (R100 in Winter), or you take a car rent free and pay the operator 40 percent of every kilometre you travel, no matter if you have a fare in the car or not. ‘The problem here,’ said Bomani, ‘is you must always find someone to take home after you make a drop off.’ If one is lucky enough to have one’s own car there is the option of renting a taxi permit from an existing operator for R1000 a month. ‘Then,’ explained Eric, ‘you put that company’s stickers on your car at your own cost. You buy a sign and a meter and you are ready for business.’ None of these systems requires a test or any background checks. Operators only see their drivers when there is a major problem with the car. Drivers pay their rent at the end of each week, an occasion they dread.

‘This morning I was in town, there was nothing,’ said Rogers. ‘From there I moved to the cable station, again nothing.’

None of the drivers had taken a fare the whole day. It was 3pm, overcast, and the likelihood of their making any money was slim.

‘We all have to save in summer so that we can survive in winter,’ said Bomani.

I asked if they were operating outside the law and the answer was a defiant ‘No!’ Pirates, they explained, do not display the distinctive red taxi permits. Some carried fakes but they knew who these people were—Burundian nationals mainly.
‘It is true,’ said Eric, ‘my people are mostly driving the pirate taxis here, and they know places in Brooklyn and Parow where they can get fake permits, and fake driving licenses also. But we are not allowing pirates up here. If a pirate comes, he is competing with us, so we chase him away.’

The taxi drivers I spoke to were desperate (even more than usual because the cable car was shut for repairs), but if they knew one luxury, it was the fact that Traffic Services and the police never bothered them. The problem here, it seems, stems from the fact that pirates, and indeed the industry as a whole, is busiest at night, when there are no traffic officers available. With hundreds of thousands of tourists expected in the city in less than 300 days time, it is worth asking what government intends doing about this glaring blind spot.

‘Real panic,’ is how a local transport expert describes the Department of Transport’s approach to the problem. ‘They’ve realised that no thought has been given to the transport industry most 2010 tourists are likely utilise.’
A Pretoria-based transport consultancy was contracted to develop a last minute development strategy, which proposes better regulation, a properly trained and staffed inspectorate, improved vehicles with new meter specifications, as well as drivers trained and tested on local knowledge, customer care and regulations—all very well, except the industry itself is yet to be consulted.

‘They’ve been about to consult us since 1994,’ says George Todd. ‘Every couple of years there are reports commissioned about the industry, sometimes costing 2-3 million. There’s all this spending and no action whatsoever.’

In Cape Town, in their Leeuwen Street HQ built on the site where hansom cab driver No.86 James Wallendorf once lived ‘with a convicted prostitute in a loft over a stable’, the staff of the provincial traffic services are confidant that 2010 will be the catalyst that finally ‘changes the face of the industry’. Jazz musician Kosie Haarhoff, whose mandate it is to effect this change, told me the province is busy drawing up a set of regulations which will enable the province and the city to advance improved law enforcement plans. From the window he points out vehicles carrying what he hopes will be the taxi brand of the future—an orange backside for taxis and the label Smarttransit. Taxi operators, says Haarhoff, will adopt the brand ‘because they will find that they are losing market share to these smart-looking vehicles that carry the provincial seal.’ A co-op has apparently been formed on behalf of the industry, with an operations base in Paarden Eiland, which Haarhoff says will offer support services, like a central despatch. ‘Currently there are 127 operators there,’ says Haarhoff. ‘This is what we have already done for the industry.’

But when I check this information with the Abubaker Safodien his lips tighten. ‘Kosie want to show you a pair of keys and tell you he has a building. You can go and write that that Mr. Baker says Kosie is a liar. I don’t care, because I’m not here for the government, I’m here for the industry.’

In their turn, the heads of Cape Town’s major taxi fleets suggest that the Metered Taxi Association which Safodien heads is largely ineffectual as a political body, and that it is they themselves who look after the industry’s service standards by providing in-house driver training, by insisting on letters of referral from each other when drivers change companies, even insisting, in the case of Excite, that all drivers are over the age of 35 and married.

A Metered Taxi Indaba has been scheduled for September (not that any of the bosses know it yet), and although it should make for good spectator sport, it is doubtful whether dislocations which go back to the 1920s can be meaningfully fused in the time left before 2010.

Tourists will get where they need to go,’ says the Management of ___, ‘but they’re going to be disappointed by variable service and abuses and so on—the system is so open to exploitation. The bigger question is what happens afterwards—will the will still be there to take this industry where it needs to go? We’re in the dark ages, really. It’s a pity.’