GEORGE NEWS - Following days of violence and criminal acts, including the torching of two George municipal traffic patrol cars and the petrol bombing of the private vehicle of a GoGeorge Bus Service employee, I, as the Western Cape Minister of Transport and Public Works, have published a notice in the Government Gazette, making known my intention to implement extraordinary measures to protect commuters and secure infrastructure.
The notice, published in terms of Section 91 of the National Land Transport Act, Act 5 of 2009, identifies all the ranks and routes that the Minister may close in the event that the violence continues, or escalates. In the notice, the Minister also provides the background to the conflict between disgruntled taxi operators and their drivers and the operators of the GoGeorge bus service.
The Department of Transport and Public Works has requested the SAPS and traffic enforcement in George to be on high alert, following reports that UNCEDO leaders were calling on operators from outside of George to flood the area and block key routes, ranks and the bus depot.
I have made it clear that criminal charges will be pursued against any operators who participate in- or encourage acts of criminality.
The Provincial Taxi Registrar and the Provincial Regulatory Entity (PRE) will also investigate incidents and implement disciplinary action against associations, operators or their employees who breach the Codes of Conduct for taxi associations, operators and drivers.
Origins of conflict
The origins of the conflict in George go back as far as 2006, when the Western Cape Department of Transport and Public Works, in partnership with the National Department of Transport and the George Municipality, started initial engagements with the public transport industry in George around the development and implementation of a George Integrated Public Transport Network (GIPTN) - then known as the George Mobility Strategy.
Since then, the Western Cape Government has worked closely with the National Department of Transport, the George Municipality, the George public transport (taxi) operators as well as the people of George to deliver a public transport system that will see mobility in George transformed.
This project is South Africa’s first non-metro integrated public transport system and has been adopted as the pilot project for the future roll-out of other IPTNs outside of large cities.
Following extensive consultation with public transport operators, other affected stakeholders and the George community, the necessary infrastructure was developed and a Vehicle Operating Company (George Link Pty Ltd) was established, comprising legal taxi operators at the time, to enter into a negotiated contract with government to provide scheduled public transport services within the George municipal boundaries.
As part of the implementation of the GIPTN, minibus-taxi operators agreed to relinquish all minibus-taxi type operating licences authorising services within the George municipal boundaries. It should be noted that negotiations were protracted and difficult.
On 25 May 2014 the chief negotiator for the minibus-taxi industry, Mr Tom Queba, was murdered.
Phase 1 of the project was eventually rolled out in December 2014. This was followed by phase 2 in March 2015 and phase 3 in May 2015. The service was broadly welcomed by the people of George.
The Go George service offers commuters affordable, scheduled, safe and reliable services, contributing to improved quality of life and much better access to opportunities.
However, certain factions within the taxi industry expressed unhappiness with the negotiation process, claiming that no data collection and analysis was part of the design of the system, no investigations conducted to establish training needs and empowerment programmes, and that proper consultation had not taken place with all affected stakeholders.
Phase 4 of the project was due to be implemented in September 2015. However, a memorandum of demands was delivered to the George Municipality on 27 July 2015.
As per the memorandum, the taxi industry threatened to embark on non-stop strike action until the George Municipality re-opens the negotiation process. It was stated that the intention of the strike was to make George ungovernable.
On 19 August 2015, five Go George buses were set alight, roads were blockaded and CCTV cameras and police vehicles damaged by taxi drivers and operators.
Following the violent incidents in 2015, government continued to operate in good faith and all affected stakeholders were consulted. Most of the operators belonging to George Taxi Owners Front and George Taxi Association have relinquished their operating licences for cancellation or amendment and have been compensated by the George Municipality.
However, members of UNCEDO George Taxi Association have not complied with the agreements that they signed with government.
Since August 2015, 18 protest marches have been held in resistance to the Go George project. Following further consultation, it was agreed that Phase 4A would be implemented in the Thembalethu area in December 2016.
On 3 November 2016 the chair of UNCEDO George Taxi Association, Mr Wesley Sikhumbuso Mini, was murdered.
UNCEDO George Taxi Association requested government to stop the roll-out. A number of demands were made, including but not limited to, the reopening of negotiations, unhappiness with the compensation amount, the lifting of the moratorium on new minibus-taxi operating licence applications and allowing taxi operators to operate in competition with the Go George Service.
During the early part of 2017, the National Minister of Transport appointed a mediator to facilitate discussions between the taxi industry and government. The mediation report was released in March 2017 and concluded that the process between government and the taxi industry had been administratively fair.
In February 2019, a community meeting in Thembalethu, to discuss the roll-out of phase 4 was violently interrupted. This was followed by a protest march by the Thembalethu Community Forum on 14 March 2019.
On 19 April 2019 the vehicle of a George Link employee (and taxi operator) was petrol-bombed. Routes served by the Go George bus service have been flooded with illegal operators, by mainly Uncedo-affiliated associations.
This resulted in touting for- and intimidation of passengers by illegal operators, and ultimately destructive competition with the subsidised Go George bus service.
Operators supporting the roll-out of the Go George bus service have been intimidated and several complaints have been received by the Department, the George Municipality and the SAPS. On 25 April 2019, the National Minister announced that the roll-out of phase 4B, which was scheduled for 28 April 2019, would be postponed until the 1st week in June 2019.
Taxi violence high risk
Within this context, I have published my intention to invoke my powers in terms of section 91 of the National Land Transport Act (Act 5 of 2009)(NLTA). After consultation with the relevant planning authority (in this case the George Municipality) I have decided to declare the George area as high-risk in respect of taxi violence.
The notice lists a number of actions that the Minister may implement, including:
•To close all routes served by the Go George Bus service for minibus-taxi type operations;
•To close one or more or all the routes and the rank(s) in the declared area for the operation of any type of public transport service (by affected operators), for the period stated in the notice. This includes routes to and from Thembalethu;
•To suspend any operating licence or permit authorising any of the services on a closed route or routes or at a closed rank or ranks (for affected operators) in the declared area for the relevant period;
•To instruct that no person may undertake any of the services on a closed route or routes or at a closed rank or ranks in the declared area or in terms of an operating licence or permit that has been suspended; and
•To allow other operators, who need not be the holders of operating licences/permits for the affected routes/areas currently, to come in and provide the services in the interim period until the situation returns to normal.
These actions may be implemented in phases at the discretion of the minister after consultation with other government departments and affected stakeholders.
The current situation and threats are compromising peace and stability within the public transport industry, and could result in further incidents of violence that in turn could result into the loss of lives. This should be avoided at all cost.
Closing taxi ranks
To stabilise the situation and to avert tension between public transport operators, I have made known my intention to close the minibus-taxi ranks in Thembalethu and the George CBD for a set period.
Although not all the routes from the George CBD Taxi Facility are affected by the violence, it is considered prudent to close the entire rank to avoid further tension between operators and taxi-on-bus violence.
No minibus-taxi operations will be allowed in these areas. I, however, reserve the right to only close certain of the routes in the area or certain of the loading lanes at the ranks, depending on the progress made by departmental officials, advice received from other stakeholders and government departments, and the situation on the ground.
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