Jozi Feels the taxi strike sting

Don Makatile

Don Makatile

With no taxis on the roads, the Johannesburg city centre assumed a semblance of normality yesterday.

But true to the cliche "One man's meat is another man's poison", not everyone was chuffed at the absence of taximen - business suffered.

Throngs of commuters who depend on taxis to ferry them were stranded as drivers and their owners went on strike to vent their anger against BRT, the bus rapid transport programme that the government is bent on bulldozing through before the 2010 World Cup.

In the analogy of one taxi boss on a radio talk show yesterday, who felt BRT was being rammed down their throats, it was like "buying someone a suit without having taken their measurements".

There were bitter complaints from motorists who were apparently muscled off the roads in the morning peak-hour traffic into town. But for those whose business forced them into town at midday, driving in the city centre - especially in the proximity of the normally clogged taxi ranks - was a breeze.

Roads around Beyers Naude Square, where the taximen gathered to hand over their memorandum to the ANC's general secretary Gwede Mantashe and NEC member Billy Masetlha, were cordoned off. Behind the lines stood a huge contingent of police and traffic officers on foot and some on horses.

The Bree Street taxi rank, normally a hive of activity, was in a lull. While other drivers - early birds on their working day - took a siesta, others were in more exuberant mood, dancing to traditional Zulu music blaring from their stereos and quaffing beer.

There was nary a passenger in sight. The rank was one big garage of parked taxis.

Many business outlets were closed. Those that dared to open, like the Standard Bank opposite the square, did so after the marchers dispersed - and only to a customer or two. Throughout the gathering, staff at African Bank within earshot of the march remained locked inside the building: "We're afraid (to open)."

Those that stood open, like the pie franchise at the foot of Luthuli House, stood with roller doors half open.

"We want to be able to close quickly in case there's trouble," said Lizzy Sibondana.

The outlet normally does brisk business "but not today". Sibondana said they were assured by the huge police presence outside that nothing untoward was going to happen.

Others, like Maureen Mdakane, saw in the dark cloud of the strike the proverbial silver lining. Mdakane, of Yeoville, who has a day job, skipped work and her son missed school "as there were no taxis". He was helping dish up pap and chicken/beef at R25 a plate. She heard through the grapevine that yesterday was going to be good for food hawkers. True to form, the taximen swarmed her impromptu stall.

"I'm not complaining," she said.

Christine Nombini's shop sells traditional Seshweshwe ladies wear. It was a bad day for her.

"There are very few customers today."

The shopkeeper next door, Bongani Mokoena, who caters for the high-end market of men's sartorial elegance, had the same lament.

Chief executive of the Johannesburg Chamber of Commerce and Industry Keith Brebnor laments the fact that the country's image abroad has been dented - once again. In his view, we are telling the Afro-pessimist world that we cannot solve our own problems.

"The BRT has been a fact of life for a while now," he says, adding he's perturbed that one sector wants to act as if they knew nothing about the proposed transport system.

He puts the loss at anywhere between R7 and R15million.

Driving out of town was "like a Sunday" said the man in the car with me as we drove past a lone woman hitchhiking her luck out of town.

Downtown Jozi in the blanket market around Diagonal Street was a ghost town. Business here clearly depends on people taxied into town. Yesterday it was just another country.