South Africa's rattletrap taxis move millions - and an economy

Mon Mar 10, 2014 8:14am EDT
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By David Dolan

SOWETO, South Africa (Reuters) - Zakes Hadebe's minibus taxi has nearly half a million kilometers on the clock, a broken speedometer and a fuel gauge he struggles to keep just above empty.

Yet by 8 a.m. on a recent Friday, Hadebe and his rattling Toyota had already overcome rain, traffic and an ever-rising petrol price to ferry nearly 40 commuters from South Africa's black township of Soweto to nearby Johannesburg.

South Africa's minibus taxi industry, scorned by other motorists for reckless driving and dogged by a reputation for violence, moves 15 million people every day, most of them lower income blacks. More like buses than the taxis of New York or London, the rumbling 16-seaters are the wheels of Africa's largest economy.

With an annual revenue estimated at $3.7 billion, the industry is also drawing attention from local finance firms and global automakers. Nissan this month started selling taxis in South Africa after an 18-year hiatus, looking to challenge Toyota's dominance.

"If the taxi industry were to stop completely, there's no cleaner at your house, there's no coffee at work, there's no workers on the work floor," said Nkululeko Buthelezi, chief executive of the South African National Taxi Council industry body.

The industry sprang up during white-minority rule, when blacks had to live in townships miles away from the cities where they worked and where bus service was spotty.

Since the end of apartheid in 1994, taxis have grown into arguably South Africa's largest black-owned sector, with around 250,000 vehicles and directly employing 600,000.

While the average owner has 2-1/2 vehicles and employs drivers, some, like Hadebe, do the driving themselves.   Continued...

Passengers board Zakes Hadebe's minibus taxi early in the morning in Soweto February 21, 2014.REUTERS/MIke Hutchings