Transport minister Fikile Mbalula has conceded that the decision to allow taxis to operate at 100% capacity was an “economic” one aimed at preserving the critical industry amid a surge in the coronavirus pandemic.
“We want 50% so we can see visible distancing in the taxi. If you were to do that — let’s confront the reality — where would the industry be in the next two months? Who would pay the instalment?,” he said on Thursday.
“In our engagements with the banks, we are talking postponement, not that the debt will be written off. Let’s confront the reality. Unfortunately the reality is dealing with us when we are dealing with these issues.”
He labelled the industry, which transports the majority of South Africans on a daily basis, as a “sunset industry” that needed to be “defended and protected”.
The government announced this week that it would renege on earlier regulations limiting passenger capacity to 70% to allow for some semblance of social distancing, giving the green light for 100% capacity.
The industry had shot down an offer of just over R1bn in relief funds, which would have amounted to about R5,000 per registered taxi, saying it would not be sufficient to absorb the losses incurred or to put a stop to the repossession of vehicles.
Mbalula was at pains to emphasise that the government had not been bullied by the industry, adding the decision was not born of political considerations.
“We have extinguished the political in our considerations. If it was political, it would carry weight that we are afraid. It is economical — the industry would perish if we continued with 70% or 50% [capacity].”
He said it was easy for those not in government to criticise the decisions taken during this period, but the government was doing its best with what was available.
“I can’t put my head on the block and say nobody will be infected by this decision. We have done everything in our power and we have looked at everything and addressed the issue of the preservation of life,” said the minister during a lengthy media briefing.
“We went to the MAC [ministerial advisory committee]. It was not an easy decision. Like all matters of Covid-19, decisions are not easy. Look at the alcohol and cigarette decisions. Every decision you take, you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t.”
The distribution of the relief fund still hangs in the balance after the industry rejected a plan to make Sars the implementing agency. Under the system proposed by the government to disburse the funds, only licensed operators would benefit.
Mbalula said the funds remained with his department and that he was working overtime to find a system which was agreeable to the industry.
“The R1bn is with us — it is with our money. We are discussing what must happen to it. It must go to the taxi industry in the end, we don’t want it to go back to Treasury … We are looking at mechanisms [to] distribute that money.”
Another sticking point with the industry has been permits for long-distance travel. The industry had demanded that the department scrap individual permits for all commuters in a taxi crossing provincial borders.
The director-general of the department, Alec Moemi, said they were working on a specific permit for those who straddle provincial borders, living in one province and working in another on a daily basis. For those crossing borders for exceptional purposes, Moemi said doing so without permits would be an offence.
“Police will answer better as to how they handle those that are there [in long-distance taxis] and those that don’t have permits. New regulations make it clear that it is an offence. Law enforcement will decide what to do, but we know what must happen to people who commit offences,” said Moemi on how the matter would be enforced.