In South Africa, a Drive to Rein in Cabbies
In South Africa, a Drive to Rein in Cabbies
By Patrick McGroarty
PRETORIA-Siyanda Dyantyi was lounging near a metal guardrail when a minibus whooshed past, uncomfortably close, at the annual safe-driving competition for South Africa's taxi drivers. "We need helmets here!" shouted Mr. Dyantyi, a contestant awaiting his turn on the concrete track.
It was a competition, many critics of the industry would say, to find the best among the worst. South Africa's ubiquitous minibus taxis are shaped like loaves of bread, but roar down the road like scud missiles. They speed through red lights; brake randomly for passengers; and emit a pulse of beeps to entice customers aboard.
Some 200,000 of the white-and-yellow vans prowl South Africa's roads, carrying two-thirds of the country's commuters to work. To many in South Africa's wealthier car-owning class, that's 200,000 taxis too many.
"They're unsafe," said Dave Petersen, a 56-year-old television producer buying fishing gear at a Johannesburg strip mall. "They just break every rule." Asked whether he'd had any close encounters with reckless taxi drivers, Mr. Petersen replied, "Not in the last five minutes."
Driving in South Africa is more dangerous than in most of the world. In 2011, 28 people were killed on the road for every 100,000 people in the country, government statistics show, above the world-wide average of around 20 deaths for every 100,000 people. About 5% of vehicles in South Africa are minibuses, but they are involved in 10% of South Africa's fatal crashes.
Crashes involving packed taxis can be extraordinarily grisly. One Friday in April, six people were killed when their taxi rolled over and 11 more died in a collision between a taxi and a car on the same highway between Johannesburg and Durban.
Like so much in South Africa, the taxi business is rooted in the political and economic distortions of the apartheid era, when the white-minority government forced blacks, whites and other ethnic groups to live in separate areas.
The townships and "homelands" left to blacks were often the farthest from the factories and suburban homes where they worked, and connections by public buses and trains were poor. An informal taxi industry sprung up to serve them, flourishing in the 1980s despite harassment by the authorities.
The defiant spirit that got the industry through apartheid took a darker turn in recent years. Murders of taxi drivers on coveted routes were common in the decade after white rule ended in 1994. A turf war in Johannesburg claimed dozens of lives in 1998. Four years ago, taxi drivers in Cape Town allegedly set new city buses on fire, fearing the expanded service would hurt their business.
Industry leaders say those disturbances are in the past. "The lion that terrified has been made meek," said Francis Masitsa, chairman of the National Taxi Alliance. He said the public has grown tired of the industry's aggression, putting it under pressure to clean up its act.
For the past seven years, instructors have crossed the country offering driver-education seminars and recruiting conscientious drivers to compete in the Brandhouse Number-One Taxi Driver competition, sponsored by the South African distributor for liquor brands including Jose Cuervo tequila and Smirnoff vodka.
This year Brandhouse, Toyota Motor Corp. and Chevron South Africa Ltd. upped the stakes, offering four new 14-seat Toyota Quantum minibuses to top drivers and thousands of dollars in cash and gasoline vouchers to other finalists.
Thirty drivers were at the June finals at a vehicle-testing center on the outskirts of Pretoria, South Africa's capital. They had to keep a taxi under control while cruising across concrete flooded with water, and bring a taxi to a screeching halt after reaching speeds above 100 kilometers an hour, or about 60 miles per hour. They were also quizzed on first aid and basic firefighting.
On the first day of the competition, Mr. Dyantyi, the Cape Town-based driver who cried out as a taxi flew past him, had just successfully navigated a series of tight weaves and 90-degree reverse-turns through a maze of orange cones. He was somewhat dismissive of his fellow competitors.
"Don't try to be like them," said the 26-year-old with a round face and a faint mustache. "Try to be the best."
Contestants saw the fanciful drills as serious business. For drivers whose salaries average $300 to $450 a month, a new taxi is a life-changing asset.
Naledi Ntepang hauls passengers around Kuruman in the Northern Cape province and to Johannesburg once a week. The 25-year-old driver said he would keep up that schedule if he won. "I'm too young to find a driver, to sit at home being the big boss," he said.
At the end of the competition, contestants gathered in a hotel banquet hall for an awards ceremony. Many were too nervous to enjoy the buffet of potato salad and roast beef.
"We're shaking. I can't even talk," said Lovingson Nkosi, a contestant from near the border with Mozambique, who sat at a table with Messrs. Ntepang and Dyantyi. "Butterflies in stomachs all over," Mr. Ntepang added.
Mr. Dyantyi said he was nervous too. That didn't stop him from breaking into a jig, in the middle of the buffet line, when a popular South African band came on the sound system.
After two hours of speeches from sponsors, a dreadlocked MC announced the results.
Mr. Dyantyi came in second, winning a new taxi. He leapt up with his hands extended in double-peace signs and did a backward-shuffle dance to the stage. "It's the beginning of green pastures," he said.
Mr. Ntepang won a second-tier prize of $2,400-two-thirds of his annual salary. He said he would to put the money toward buying his own taxi. Mr. Nkosi won a $360 consolation prize and said he was richer nonetheless.
"I took the bus here. I've never been in a greyhound before in my life. I'm in a hotel. I've never been in a hotel," he said. "So I don't have to stress about it. I'm already blessed."
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