MICHAEL MORRIS: What the Cape taxi strike showed SA
When the mobility of the labouring workforce was halted the vulnerability of our fate as a divided society was quickly revealed
Every now and then events strip away the shroud of familiarity that gives reality its placid, deceptive appearance of circumstances so routine that it’s hard to see why they might require attention at all.
I am thinking of the Cape taxi strike, though less the strike itself than what it revealed. We have gained important, sometimes unnerving, insights into the multibillion-rand taxi industry, which for the vast majority is the mainstay of mobility in a country that has neglected almost all the institutional and material infrastructure needed to give people safe, reliable and affordable public transport.
We have gained crisp lessons on how to arrest the piecemeal erosion of the rule of law guaranteed by the weaselly politics of conceding to the menacing among us. And central to those lessons is surely that the law must serve society, not merely this or that strong-arming interest.
But the strike told us something far more basic: when the mobility of the labouring workforce was abruptly halted the vulnerability of our fate as a still deeply divided society was quickly revealed. And with it, almost ironically, the fundamentally indivisible condition that has long been SA’s destiny.
No part of the whole can go it alone, yet when mass transport fails we see all too clearly how differently we live, by class and so by race; the failure of “transformation” is so pronounced that we are inescapably reminded of the divided 1980s. It is true that, for example, food deliveries were universally affected, with one report referring credibly enough to empty supermarket shelves “from Constantia to Khayelitsha”.
More telling by far though was the Financial Mail piece by former colleague Matthew Hirsch, framing the strike in the context of a single man, Sibabale Dumezweni, who lives in Khayelitsha and works in Sea Point, and so straddles a divide whose ordinariness in 2023 ought to be controversial (“How to bring a city to its knees”, August 10).
Dumezweni’s comment on willing the end of the strike and being eager to get to work opens the piece. Hirsch brings us back to him at the end, with Dumezweni deciding to walk home, taxi or no taxi, noting baldly: “He left Sea Point at 3pm, reaching home after 9pm.”
On the same day fellow columnist Chris Roper alerted us to what I also think is the “larger problem” (“Taxi strike a two-way street”, August 10). He wrote: “So while we are entirely justified in decrying the violence, lawlessness and general disregard for fellow citizens displayed by this taxi strike, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that these are all symptoms of the usual SA larger problem. This is what we need to be alert to here — people and groups who are going to use grievances that are legitimate to drive polarisation in our country.”
You have only to bring to mind that extraordinary more than six-hour walk of Dumezweni, Hirsch’s informant, to appreciate this “larger problem” and what it might require us to do differently. I don’t think I could put it better than Roper does in his final paragraph.
“Nobody,” he writes, “is asking you to forgive the striking drivers and their opportunistic camp followers the specific acts of destruction they are dealing out. But once the dust has settled we’re going to have to at least try to deal with the seemingly intractable inequalities that have brought us to this point.”
It is surely obvious now that they will not go away on their own.
• Morris is head of media at the SA Institute of Race Relations.
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