by Frances Correia

Incidences of “taxi violence” frequently make the headlines. Recently routes and taxi ranks in Soweto were closed due to disagreements over the control of these routes.

The issue really hit home for me last week when I witnessed a very disturbing incident. A woman standing on a suburban road waiting for a taxi, was spotted by a friend in his car. He offered her a lift. As she was getting into the car three taxi drivers pulled her out, began to stone the car, and hit her. One then demanded she get into his taxi.

After assisting her, I listened to some commuters telling their side of the story. There are commuters who have no choice but to use taxis. Many are afraid of the drivers. One woman spoke of going to a new job and having her cell phone open looking at a map in the taxi, because she felt too afraid to ask the driver where she should get off.

Women in particular are vulnerable when they travel. They are vulnerable to assault, to verbal and sexual abuse. With the escalation of violence between different service providers, there seems to be a devaluing of their customers. A Daily Maverick article quoted a commuter who said the taxi drivers “treat us like dirt”. A group of women commuters were threatened by a driver who said he would ‘klap’ them if didn’t get in line.

What is going on here? Stories of intimidation and the abuse of commuters by drivers reveal a different issue to the one of violence between operators.

If we look at the broad question of service providers, we see that the taxi associations are asking for state intervention so that routes are clearly demarcated. The violence in the industry is often related to the battle for monopoly power. To ask the state for aid means that the state too can collude in the setting up of monopolies.

The consequence for commuters, often poor people, is that they will have no choice about how to travel. The woman who was attacked for accepting a lift from a friend, highlights the taxi drivers’ sense of entitlement to all the commuters on a particular route. There is no freedom in this scenario.

In a democratic system one of the greatest challenges to personal freedom is the entrenchment of monopoly power by the state, especially when industries have pushed them to do this. It then becomes illegal for other entrepreneurs to operate. The net result is that consumers, in this case commuters, are denied the right to choose. The organisations feel entitled to the services they offer, often resulting in poor customer care.

This is what we are seeing in the taxi industry. The entrenchment of control by taxi associations and the fear of violence should other operators attempt to work in those areas, have all led to less freedom for commuters. Because there is no choice, commuters cannot walk away when they are treated badly or abused by drivers.

Monopoly control of any industry creates an environment where the basic dignity of the person can easily be undermined.