TAXI operators have always been seen as an uncouth lot that makes roads hazardous for other users and cares little about passengers.
With so much recklessness and many accidents, including fatal ones, blamed on the public kombi drivers, it’s not easy to dismiss that notion as an unmerited stereotype.
Yet the importance of the taxi industry, which transports more than 60 percent of South Africa’s commuters, cannot be overemphasised.
From the days the industry emerged as a flagship of black entrepreneurship in the late 1980s, it has been struggle after struggle for the transporters.
In the early days, they had to constantly defy apartheid machinations and political tensions to go about their business.
As more and more joined the budding sector, violent fights over routes between operators became the order of the day.
After South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994 that ushered the ANC into power, efforts to rein in and regularise the sector to establish a safe and reliable taxi industry that will make a meaningful contribution to the economy have not been easy.
Such is the volatile nature of the taxi industry that we quickly take note when operators threaten a revolt or disobedience of some sort.
And we did take serious note this week when some taxi operators in Bloemfontein vowed they would resist moves to force them to use the R400-million intermodal terminal in the Free State capital.
Mangaung executive mayor Thabo Manyoni had initially given all taxi operators up to the end of September to move to the facility that has lain unused since its construction five years ago.
The transporters have not done so as yet – and their representatives have been engaging with municipal authorities to try to find an amicable solution.
These efforts are commendable.
We were, however, left a little puzzled by provincial police, roads and transport MEC Butana Khompela’s ultimatum when he said this week he was giving the taxi operators and the metro municipality up to mid-November to reach agreement on relocation to the terminal or he would step in to enforce the law.
Khompela warned he could be forced to revoke licences of operators refusing to relocate to the facility.
We believe the MEC means well, but we fear his decree might end up derailing the talks between the operators and the municipality that both sides say have been smooth even though no agreement has been reached as yet.
Forcing taxi operators to relocate to the white elephant against their will could trigger violent confrontation between the authorities and the transporters.
That’s why we cannot dismiss vows by several of the taxi operators interviewed by this newspaper that they would not be “intimidated” or ordered around to the terminal “like kids” as cheap talk.
We agree the taxi operators cannot be a law unto themselves.
Indeed, Bloemfontein ought to be an orderly, modern and neat city – and we know the intermodal facility was meant to help achieve that.
But then, the structural and other concerns why the operators have been refusing to use the terminal since 2009 have not been all resolved.
Problems and faults that operators wanted fixed included malfunctioning elevators, poor ventilation as well as narrow driveways, entrance and exit points that they said led to congestion at the rank, especially during peak hours.
Members of the travelling public complained they feared robbery and pick-pocketing at the rank as criminals took advantage of overcrowding to steal from commuters.
There were also concerns that the narrow entry and exist points increased the risk of stampeding.
We understand to date only a few of those problems have been attended to.
The taxi industry can appear to be an unreasonable lot, but their concerns seem quite genuine.
On the other hand, we also understand the challenges the municipality might be facing to right the shoddy work done in designing and constructing the facility at a huge cost.
This why we believe dialogue between the operators and the municipal authorities should still be given a chance.
Ultimatums do not work in this case.
We all know who will suffer the most should a war erupt between the law enforcers and the taxi industry: the commuters – and there are many of them who rely on these kombis to take them to work and back home every day.