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Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Des Van Rooyen. Picture Credit: Gallo Images
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By unknown | Apr 07, 2008 | COMMENTS [ 0 ]

Sicelo Mabaso is clearly a man used to taking his time. The question he contemplates was asked long before his iced drink was placed before him. Finally, he mentions his daughters by name - Andile, Sibongile, Wendy.

Sicelo Mabaso is clearly a man used to taking his time. The question he contemplates was asked long before his iced drink was placed before him. Finally, he mentions his daughters by name - Andile, Sibongile, Wendy.

"They have not asked me anything," ventures Mabaso, the man at the helm of three taxi bodies, "maybe they are shy."

The vocal ANC Youth League has called for the closure of the Noord Street taxi rank until, in the words of their spokesman, Zizi Kodwa, "there is a commitment from the operators to protect, defend and respect the dignity of everybody, and women in particular".

Twenty-five-year-old Nwabisa Ngcukana probably rues the day she pitched up at the now notorious rank in her Sunday best. She was stripped naked by taxi drivers who took offence at her attire - a miniskirt - to wild cheers from a crowd.

The dust had hardly settled on the Ngcukana affair when, 23-year-old Precious Tshishonga was clubbed by a driver for daring to pay her R3,50 fare with a R100 note.

The lout who manhandled her was reportedly doing this because "women talk too much these days".

As I sit across the dinner table from Mabaso, some three drivers, who could easily belong anywhere under the National Taxi Alliance (NTA), the umbrella body he also chairs, vie for space in the news bulletins alongside the delayed Zimbabwe election results for a spate of rapes on commuters.

"That's good," he says to news about the arrest of the rapists, "that's what the police are supposed to do."

He adds that the taxi industry is not a holy land: "We have different characters of people."

Before he could get to this point, Mabaso had said, in response to the clarion call to close the rank: "People are over-reacting. In police stations people have been harassed, victimised. I've never heard of a call that they should be closed. In schools, teachers and kids are victims of crime. There's never been a call to close these schools.

"As owners, we don't have the means to apprehend the perpetrators. Crime occurs in all areas of life, in all businesses. You can't crucify the business.

"Taxi drivers are not our children. We employ them. We can't be held directly responsible for their indiscretions and criminal activities. We can only suspend or fire them. When a person commits a crime, the police must act."

At 64, Mabaso, whose joke that "I've lost count of the number of children I have" is lost on me, is a grandfather too.

"I feel bad," he says of the Ngcukana episode.

"What they did is not right. I can't condone it. No sensible person can."

The role of those in the industry he leads is merely to provide a service to commuters, he says, not to prescribe a dress code.

The more he warmed up, what was initially a sneak preview became a window, wide open, into his softer side - the face of a family man.

He was at the Boston Restaurant, a Gold Reef City eatery, at the invitation of his children "big boys and big girls" as he describes them, to pamper their mother. Any of the young women around the table could easily have been Ngcukana or Tshishonga.

Mabaso, of Rockville, Soweto, has been married to Queenie for 31 years.

His first encounter with the taximen came when Mabaso was contracted to transport hotel staff in the early 1990s. Because he didn't have a taxi permit, his run-ins with the licensed operators were particularly nasty.

"I asked them what it was I needed to operate freely," he recalls. "They said I should join."

Very early in his membership of the Dube West Taxi Association, he was co-opted onto its executive committee.

And so began a life as the face of the taxi business, a vocation that has thrust him into the thick of things, speaking to anyone from government ministers, rival taxi interest groups to the media.

"I have a very understanding family," he says about the people who tolerate his prolonged absences .

An oasis of reason in an industry not renowned for its level-headedness, Mabaso's conflict resolution skills came to the fore very early in his life as a taxi boss.

The 1996 taxi violence in Soweto, "where people were dying", stands out on his CV. He instilled sense into the heads of warring factions.

"I have suffered a lot," he says about life in the business, "I've had bad experiences."

In one month alone during the height of the strife, he lost three vehicles to hijackings.

He was shot. Twice.

"At some stage I was left with no taxi," he says, looking back.

He prefers not to disclose the number of taxis in his fleet but township legend has it that he's one of the biggest owners in the trade.

"I'm not rich," he's quick to respond, "but I'm not poor either. I have been able to put my children through school."

In 1997-98 the taxi leadership approached government with the plea that since their vehicles were old, and they could barely afford new ones, couldn't the authorities come to their aid by way of subsidies?

Little did they know that they were opening up a can of worms that, in a few years, would morph into the dizzying taxi recapitalisation programme.

Two years later, government reverted to the taxi top brass with a proposal.

"But reading the document, we realised that it was not what we wanted. The way it was designed meant we could only choose between two types of vehicles, an 18 and a 32-seater variation."

This, to an industry that had made its name packing commuters sardine-like, four-four, into 16-seater kombis!

The government, says Mabaso, also insisted that they do business with only one manufacturer: "We said this can't be right."

They had a sympathetic ear in late transport minister Dullah Omar, Mabaso thinks.

The new man at the top, Jeff Radebe, introduced a few nips and tucks to the Omar plan.

Says Mabaso, "We looked at it and said it looked implementable but there were challenges we needed to address."

Santaco, says Mabaso, who was speaking for the NTA group, accepted the Radebe approach, as is.

Today, people who opted for the R50000 are crying foul. Many who got the money now find they lack the creditworthiness to get finance.

"We said let those who wanted to test the poison with their tongues go ahead and do so. Now their tongues are burning."

The Dube West Taxi Association that introduced him to the industry became Nanduwe. The latter is an affiliate of Top Six, which he also steers.

Different associations throughout the country belong to either Santaco, the national taxi council, or NTA, his group.

He rarely finds time off work, but when he does, its off to church - the Antioch Apostolic Church in Zion - whose largest following is in KwaZulu-Natal.

He's the bishop of the church!

And when Noord Street is not in the news, he'll be at home listening to gospel, classic or the ballads.


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