No end in sight to taxi turf war
The Maseru Region Transport Operators (MRTO) are appealing to government to engage their South African counterparts and end the bloody clashes which have been raging between Lesotho and Free State taxi operators over the past 15 years.
MRTO spokesperson, Lebohang Moea, yesterday told the Lesotho Times that both the Lesotho and South African governments had not done enough to end the dispute, which has seen taxis being damaged and innocent passengers and drivers being assaulted.
After the two factions clashed in June last year, Lesotho taxi operators had stopped ferrying passengers from Maseru to different South African destinations but after being issued an interim order on 19 March 2015 by the High Court of South Africa Free State Division to continue with their operations, had resumed the cross-border travel on Monday this week.
However, as soon as they had crossed the Maseru Bridge Border Gate, the operators were confronted by the Free State operators and stopped from proceeding into South Africa. The taxi drivers were ordered to take their passengers back to Lesotho and never carry passengers into South Africa again, lest they be punished for it.
According to Mr Moea, the South African government and police were the worst culprits in the standoff, as the violence happens right before the police yet the perpetrators are never arrested.
“It has been 15 years since the Lesotho and South African government agreed on this cross-border issue, but the cooperation has never been respected.
“We have been having constant clashes, particularly at the Maseru Border Gate, and in June last year, we decided to protest against the ill-treatment of our taxi drivers by Free State taxi operators, by blockading the border. We parked our cars across the road and no vehicle could pass through for hours. We wanted to express our displeasure at the way our issue was being handled.
“However, the Free State operators have continued to assault our members and smash our taxis, and we are saying enough is enough.
“On Monday, we had a court order that allowed us to cross into South Africa, but as soon as six of our vehicles were across the bridge at around 11am, the drivers were stopped, assaulted and told to return to Lesotho.
“The drivers were stranded; they didn’t know what to do so they wanted to be addressed by our new government on the issue, and what was being done to end the feud.
“The fact that the taxis were parked across the bridge meant no other vehicle could cross over. The Deputy Minister of Transport and Public Works, Mokhele Moletsane, came to address us and the Minister, Tšoeu Mokeretla, also later came to see what was happening because the blockade was now affecting business in our country. The Minister of Home Affairs, Lekhetho Rakuoane, also came and they all asked us to brief them on the issue since they are new in government; they have only been in office for less than two weeks. They promised to resolve the matter soon, but when we reported the assault of our drivers at Ladybrand Police Station, the officers told us that they didn’t deal with taxi issues, especially cross-border disputes. We asked who had given that directive but they couldn’t tell us, so we left without getting any help from the Ladybrand police.
“The Free State operators simply don’t want Lesotho taxis ferrying passengers into South Africa because they would lose business. They don’t have many passengers from Ladybrand who travel to Gauteng like Basotho do, which is why they are fighting us like this. The unfortunate thing is there are no such disputes between South Africa and Botswana or Zimbabwe operators, so we wonder why they are doing this to us.
“On Tuesday, the situation was still the same at Maseru border because the South Africans had now blocked the road with their own vehicles, so we ended up using the Ficksburg border post because we need to service the South African routes.
“Today, we did not ferry any passengers into South Africa and decided to meet with our lawyer instead, and chart the way forward.
“We don’t know what happens next; a lot is at stake here; our livelihoods, as well as the lives of the very passengers we ferry who are sometimes also attacked by the South Africans simply because they would be in our vehicles.”
Meanwhile, Deputy Minister Moletsane said it was “disturbing” to witness Monday’s border-blockade as it put Lesotho in a very vulnerable state since no business could be conducted at this very critical entry point.
“We went there to reassure the transport operators that their issues would be addressed by the new government. At the end, the blockade ended but it is important that the new government moves quickly to resolve this issue. This dispute should never be allowed to continue because it has very serious implications on our economy because most imports and exports into and out of South Africa pass through the Maseru Border Gate,” Mr Moletsane said.
Meanwhile, there was no immediate comment from the South African authorities on the standoff.