SIU to help with Public Protector probe into deadly taxi conversions

Public protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane. / SANDILE NDLOVU  Iphotory
Public protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane. / SANDILE NDLOVU Iphotory

The Public Protector has teamed up with the Special Investigating Unit in an attempt to speed up an ongoing investigation into illegal panel-van conversions‚ which saw thousands of goods vehicles being passed off as Quantum passenger vehicles.

Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane’s office has confirmed that the investigation‚ started by her predecessor‚ will get forensic assistance from the SIU.

According to a source with knowledge of the investigation‚ the SIU will also help probe “deception and fraud” in the financing of minibus taxis.

Major financial institutions‚ including Toyota Financial Services and SA Taxi Finance‚ financed these illegally converted minibuses‚ which were later taken off the road for safety reasons‚ leaving taxi owners heavily indebted and their lives shattered.

Last year transport officials testified that there was a total of 2 353 illegally converted minibuses identified by a task team formed to investigate the matter.

During the public hearings‚ complainant and whistle blower Hennie de Beer said cutting panels to fit windows weakened the structure‚ with zero chance of survival in an accident.

The seats are bolted to the weak floorboard instead of the chassis‚ with seatbelts attached to the seat instead of the body of the vehicle which resulted in passengers being flung out with their chairs in a crash.

De Beer‚ a former taxi finance manager at Absa‚ told The Times he has documented at least 200 accidents in which passengers were flung from the illegally converted mini-buses.

Public Protector spokesperson Cleopatra Mosana confirmed the SIU has been brought in to conduct forensic investigations as their office had no such capacity.

“The matter involves many role players and all of them have to be granted an opportunity to share information relevant to the investigation‚ including the SIU‚ which is to assist with the forensics investigation‚” she said.

Mosana said the investigation was at an advanced stage‚ saying Mkhwebane still needed to hear testimony from more witnesses‚ including former deputy minister of transport Jeremy Cronin and SA Bureau of Standards officials.

“She would then have to prepare Section 7(9) notices to implicated parties‚ if any‚ before finalising the report‚” she said.

A source close to the Public Protector’s investigation said the SIU had been enlisted because the Public Protector’s powers limited her investigations to state affairs and issues of public administration‚ meaning she could only consider the role of government in the affair.

“This is where the Special Investigating Unit comes in because other role players in the saga are financial institutions‚ which are in the private sector. The (SIU) will handle the forensic investigation into (allegations) of deception‚ fraud and syndication in the financing of taxis with the aim of exploiting unsophisticated taxi owners for huge monetary gains‚” the contact said.

Former Pretoria taxi boss Lucas Mogotlane‚ who testified during public hearings into the illegal conversions in 2016‚ said he is anxious for the investigation to conclude.

Mogotlane had a comfortable life‚ with a fleet of nine taxis he had accumulated over two years in the 1980s.

The destruction of his taxi empire started in 1996 when government implemented the taxi recapitalisation programme.

Mogotlane and many other taxi owners were against surrendering their paid-up fleet for scrapping but in 2005 they gave in as traffic officials started impounding their fleets.

At R50 000 each‚ he received R450 000 for his scrapped fleet and immediately set about acquiring minibuses with safety specifications that were in line with the programme.

By 2009‚ the 66-year-old from Hammanskraal‚ north of Pretoria‚ had accumulated seven of what he thought were Toyota Quantum Ses'fikile minibuses‚ financed by various banks‚ including Nedbank and Wesbank.

“Then one of the minibuses was impounded. I followed it up to an impound in Johannesburg where I was told the vehicle had been taken off the system as it was not a passenger vehicle but a van manufactured to carry three people in the front‚” Mogotlane said.

At the time Mogotlane was repaying R56 000 a month to various financial institutions.

“When I approached the banks with the news‚ I was told there was nothing they could do and I must stick to the contract. I then took all the vehicles to a safe storage and called the banks to collect them there as I could not use them. It is eight years now that the banks took back the vehicles but I still get threats of legal action and payment demands. But where do I get the money?” Mogotlane said.