KOMANI and surrounding towns and villages came to a standstill last Friday as the provincial taxi industry strike led to burning tyres being used to block strategic roads.
Sixteen local taxi operators were arrested and six taxis impounded as the town counted the cost of the protest action this week.
A thick pall of smoke hung over Komani with several businesses closing down on Friday. Police cars pursued taxis through the towns with other motorists having to give way as the chases continued into oncoming traffic and over traffic lights.
Police spokesman captain Namhla Mdleleni said the 16 men were kept in custody over the weekend facing charges of public violence and attempted murder.
Mdleleni said some taxi drivers had gathered outside the police station demanding the release of the detained.
“We had talks with them and came to the agreement that we could not release them until they had appeared in court,” she said.
During the talks, a commotion ensued, resulting in a police officer allegedly being assaulted by the taxi drivers, but Mdleleni said the policeman did not open a case.
She said the police had been kept busy all day trying to prevent taxi drivers from making fires and assaulting people.
“There was a shooting next to Pick n Pay [on the N6] and we had to use rubber bullets to stop the taxi drivers from causing more damage.”
Five cases of damage to property had been reported, including two vehicles that had been stoned by mobs. Dustbins were overturned and several roads bore testimony to the tyres which had been set alight.
Mdleleni said although the situation had calmed down by late Friday, the police had remained on alert after rumours surfaced on social networks that the drivers were planning a repeat of Friday’s chaotic scenes from as early as 4am on Monday. The town, however, was calm on the day.
Businesses were not spared from financial losses, with Lynette Swarts of a motor spares business saying they had suffered losses.
“It affected our business. There were no customers coming in, the taxi drivers blocked the corner of Victoria Road and there were no cars coming into the streets. I think they must try and do the protest in a peaceful way and sit with the government because this affects other people and businesses,” she said.
Uncedo Taxi Service Komani branch chairman Ayanda Peyi said the strike was informed by the alleged failure of the transport department to issue operating licences. Permits were important for taxi operators as these ensured that insurance companies paid when taxis were involved in accidents. The granting of loans by financial institutions also hinged on such licences, while taxis were impounded for not having the operating permits.
He said the last time the board which grants permits was supposed to meet was on November 26 last year, but that the meeting had been cancelled at the last minute as transport MEC Weziwe Tikana could not make it. There had been no further communication.
Permits should be granted within 60 days of application, according to law.
“When we went on strike we did not intend to destruct property but we wanted government to understand our concerns. We did not give permission to people to destroy property – we are against criminality. We will not take responsibility for the damage done to property. In fact, we were not informed of any damaged property as a result of the strike.”
Peyi said the burning of tyres was not supposed to be part of the strike action. The actions of the police had been “brutal”, which he claimed was due to members of the police having interests in the industry.
Peyi said the strike was called off as soon as premier Phumulo Masualle accepted the petition and promised to respond within seven days – the deadline of which is today.
Speaking to The Rep during a telephonic interview on Tuesday, Tikana said the taxi operators had taken the department to court but an out-of-court settlement had been reached.
“We informed them that the board which issues licences would sit on June 20 and they have that information. They went on strike nonetheless.”
Tikana said the taxi operators had promised a peaceful strike and it was unfortunate that property was destroyed.
Masualle’s spokesman Sizwe Kupelo said the premier held two meetings with the taxi drivers where taxi bosses raised serious concerns on issues impacting the day-to-day operations of the industry, including delays in the issuing of valid operating taxi permits and the transfer of the taxi industry transformation grant by the provincial department of transport.
“The parties have agreed on the establishment of a working team to urgently seek solutions on the two matters frustrating the provincial taxi industry. The team will be composed of two representatives from the taxi industry and government officials from the office of the premier and provincial treasury.”
Kupelo said the team would report back to the premier within seven days. Another meeting is scheduled to take place with The South African National Taxi Association (Santaco) in order to give feedback.
Taxi bosses have also raised the issue of arrests made in some areas in the province during the protests, which were characterised by scenes of vandalism and other unlawful conduct.
“The meeting also agreed on the need to speed up processes to transform and formalise the industry,” Kupelo said.