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Comrade taxi drivers

This is the story of over 400 taxi drivers who have joined the Transport and General Workers Union in Vereeniging. Together, they are demanding better wages and working conditions – and at the same time, they are improving the comfort and safety of the passengers who use their taxis.

“Ayika gcwale le mota, four, four on the seat or a yi hambe”. If you travel by taxi every day, you know what these words mean. You know about the overloading, the frightening rides at high speed and the rudeness of some of the taxi drivers.

But do we know what the causes of this unhealthy situation are? Why are taxis overloaded? Why do the drivers drive so recklessly? Why do they treat their passengers so roughly? Why is there mistrust between passengers and taxi drivers?

Learn and Teach decided to find some answers to these questions. We went to speak to taxi drivers in the Vaal, members of the Transport and General Workers Union (T&GWU), an affiliate of COSATU.


“Our problems as drivers are many,” said Oupa Radebe from Evaton. He has been driving taxis since 1984 and he knows the problems that taxi drivers have, particularly with the owners of the taxis. “We are not registered and the owners do anything with us. They dismiss us and pay us whatever amount they feel like paying. We are not covered by insurance if we have an accident.

And we have no medical aid and no unemployment. insurance (UIF).

“If we complain, the owners say we can go to whoever will pay us the amount we want. But they are all the same, these owners. They do not think that we also have responsibilities. They do not care that we have children and wives to support.”


Because of all these problems, over 200 drivers in the Vaal got together and elected a Committee of 14 to represent them to the owners. “The Committee met with the six taxi . owner associations in the Vaal and gave them our demands.”

The owners did not like the Committee of 14. They tried to divide the committee by giving some of the members better wages and improved working conditions. Those who accepted the bribes from the owners left the committee and things got even worse for the rest of the drivers. The committee was a failure.


The drivers then decided that instead of trying to solve their problems on their own, they needed to join a trade union. Four drivers were elected to speak to the T&GWU about joining.

“The union accepted us with open arms. They told us that for a long time they had wanted to organise us but they did not have a person brave enough to approach us! They feared to organise us because they believed -and to some extent it is true ­- that we drivers are a rude and fearsome bunch!” said Oupa.

Mandla Msimanga of Sebokeng was one of the first drivers to join the T&GWU. “People accuse us of reckless driving and of being rude,” Mandla explained to us. “They say that our service is not professional and that we overload our taxis and squash people like sardine fish in a tin.

“But we drivers have many problems, just like factory workers. And, like factory workers, we need to be part of a union if we want to solve these problems. I am happy to be in the union because we can discuss our problems together.”


One of the biggest problems for taxi drivers is low wages. This is one of the main reasons why so many drivers are joining the union.

Mandla explained: “Taxi drivers are forced to work 16 hours a day, without days off or leave. In one week we can take more than R1 000.00 but we are paid nothing. What can you do with R80.00 or R100.00? That is what they are paying us.”

“After we joined the T&GWU, the union wrote to the Manpower Commission to find out if we taxi drivers are covered by any industrial law. Guess what? There is a law that protects taxi drivers. The salary scale for taxi drivers who are registered for a vehicle that carries more than seven passengers is R 146.09 a week,” Oupa explained.

The law says that registered drivers must be paid at least R146.09 a week. The problem is that most taxi drivers are not registered with the Department of Manpower. The Department says it cannot do anything until the taxi drivers are properly registered.


This problem of registration is a very serious one for the taxi drivers. Registration doesn’t only affect their wages – it also affects insurance. Insurance companies will only pay out for drivers who are registered. But it is the owners who must register their workers, and the owners are refusing to do this because then they will be forced to pay their workers a living wage.

Another taxi driver, Solomon Mthimkhulu, who is also a member of the union, told us about this problem of not having insurance.

“A colleague of ours was attacked by thugs who wanted to take his combi. He fought the criminals and he was shot in the ear. The combi was saved but he ended up in hospital. While he was still in hospital, the owner took the combi away, fixed the broken window and employed a new driver in his place. When he finally left the hospital, he was told that his job had been taken by somebody else.

“He was not paid during the time he was lying in hospital. If the owner had registered him with the Department of Manpower, the insurance company would have paid him. But because he was not registered, the insurance did not pay him a cent.”

Registration is one of the things that the T&GWU is fighting for. Until the drivers are registered, they will not get proper pay or insurance. But will the taxi owners register them? This is the question asked by many. “Yes,” the drivers say with confidence, “but only if we can be strong and united.”


Another serious problem for taxi drivers is accidents. Everyone knows that a lot of accidents on South Africa’s roads involve taxis. Many people say that this is because taxi drivers are bad drivers. But the taxi drivers at the T&GWU explained that there are other reasons why so many taxis are involved in accidents.

Taxi drivers are working under great pressure from the taxi owners. The reason they drive so fast and overload the taxis is that there is a quota system. This means that the owners of the taxis expect the drivers to make a certain amount of money every day. Each owner demands a different amount. Some owners demand R140 a day for mid-week work if the taxi is a fifteen-seater. And for weekends they expect R200. The drivers have to reach this target. If they don’t reach the target, they fear they will be fired.

Drivers are not happy·with this quota system. It forces them to overload their combis and to drive recklessly -not because they are wild drivers, but because the taxi owners want to make too much money. This quota system is the cause of many accidents and it makes the passengers’ journey extremely unpleasant and dangerous.

And if drivers have an accident in an overloaded taxi, the insurance companies will not pay, even if the drivers are registered. The insurance companies say that the accident happened because the taxi was overloaded. They say it was the driver’s own fault for overloading.


Another reason why there are so many accidents is that the owners do not keep their vehicles in a roadworthy condition. Too many drivers are given sikorokoros to drive. Many accidents could be avoided if the taxis were roadworthy. What makes matters worse is that when the drivers get tickets because the combis are not roadworthy, the owners do not pay the fines. And when the fines are not paid, it is the drivers who get arrested, not the owners. The owners simply employ a new driver in their place and carry on with business as usual.

Whenever there is an accident, it is the drivers and the passengers who pay the price, not the owners. If a driver is injured or disabled in an accident, he usually gets fired. He gets no compensation for the accident, no insurance and very often cannot get another job because of the injury.


The union is aware of all of these problems and will fight to solve them. But first, they must get unity among the taxi drivers.

“Many of us did not believe that the trade unions would be as strong as they are today,” Mandla explained. “Many employers did not want them and at first the government did not recognise them. But today things are very different. The trade union movement grows more powerful each day. We know many workers will be expelled from their jobs. It happened in 1973 when many unions began, and it is still happening today. But if we stand together, we will win in the end.”

Over 400 taxi drivers in the Vaal are already standing together in the T&GWU. They are organised around the different taxi routes. Each route has its own shopstewards called “taxi shopstewards”. For example, taxis operating on the Sharpeville/ Vereeniging route have their own taxi shopstewards. And the same is true for all the other routes in Sebokeng, Evaton, Bophelong and Vanderbjilpark.

The union has drawn up a list of demands which they will fight for. These include:

  1. recognition of the union

  2. the registration of all drivers with the Department of Manpower so that they can get proper wages and insurance

  3. an end to the quota system

  4. an end to unfair dismissals

  5. roadworthy vehicles that are safe for drivers and passengers.

Drivers in the union will also demand March 21 and June 16 as paid holidays. Presently, the situation is “no work, no pay”.


One important lesson that the drivers have learned since they joined the union is that they are serving the community. “We are part and parcel of the oppressed community,” said Mandla, “and so are the owners, although they are rich from the money we make for them.”

Oupa agrees with Mandla. Since they joined the union, the drivers have come to understand that their struggle is the same struggle that all the oppressed people of South Africa are fighting -the struggle against exploitation.

Oupa is happy that the community is starting to trust the drivers. He believes this is because of the education the drivers have been given in the union. And it is also because the workers who use their taxis to go to work every day see them in union meetings and know that they are comrades.

“I never thought this would happen. Today passengers call me “comrade” when they greet me. And we share our experiences and problems as workers. Besides meeting in my taxi, we meet every week in union meetings to discuss our problems and to educate each other in the union.”

And the passengers are happy that the taxi drivers are joining the union. “We are very glad and happy now. We hope other drivers also join the union and we become one. We must sympathise with them. I did not know why they load us like potatoes, and now I know,” said Mrs Keneilwe Sokeng, a passenger from Sebokeng.


But Mandla is not satisfied because there are still many people who do not understand the drivers’ problems. ”The passengers who are not union members don’t know why we overload, and why we drive in a hurry. They do not understand the frustrations that cause us to be rude and rough. It is like working for an employer who shouts at you all the time. You get angry inside, and when you arrive home, you take all that anger out on your children or your wife.”

Mandla thinks that if all the taxi drivers in the country are united in the union, there will be a good chance of improving the relationship between drivers and passengers. “But what is happening now is that owners are dismissing drivers because they belong to the union and hiring new drivers in their place. These new drivers are not members of the union and they carry on behaving badly towards the passengers. They will continue to harrass our people, and this will continue to give us a bad name. Only if we are one and united, and if we can say ‘An injury to one is an injury to all’, will we change this situation.”

The taxi drivers of the T&GWU have a message for passengers all over the country: “We want to offer you the best service possible. We want you to travel in comfort and safety to and from your work. But we are struggling, comrades, just like you. Bear with us on our difficult road to victory.”

Maybe we can all help these drivers give us the kind of service we want. The next time you ride in a taxi, tell the driver this story of the T&GWU drivers from the Vaal. It could be the news he is waiting for!


3rd Floor Queens Court Corner Bree and Klein Streets Johannesburg 2001 Tel: (011) 29 4913

NOTE: The T&GWU is also organising taxi queue marshalls.


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