x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Time stands still for town's taxis

Lined up at the Daveyton taxi rank, ageing automotive workhorses still ply their trade, years after their contemporaries have gone to the scrapyard.

Davyton residents still love thirsty old 1970s American cars that serve the town as taxis.
Davyton residents still love thirsty old 1970s American cars that serve the town as taxis.

DAVEYTON, SOUTH AFRICA // Lined up at the Daveyton taxi rank, ageing automotive workhorses still ply their trade, years after their contemporaries have gone to the scrapyard. By a historical quirk, local rides in town, on the urban sprawl of the East Rand outside Johannesburg, are largely provided by ancient Chevrolets, enormous machines dating from the early 1970s, with six-cylinder engines and room and weight to match. Time has taken its toll on their bodies. Handles are missing, panels are rusted through and everyday functions inoperable. Bad suspensions are a common problem, battered by the area's potholed roads. Sibusiso Ndebele, 36, had a fork lying on his dashboard of his 1974 Kommando - it and the Constantia were models developed by the US marque for South African manufacture. "It's to open the boot," he said. "We can't find the key any more." But their engines and gearboxes remain extraordinarily reliable, according to Satch Maboma, a street mechanic who works at the rank, part of a support economy that includes gambling and food centred around the drivers. "These are the strongest cars," he said. The Chevrolets are a phenomenon that illustrates several aspects of contemporary South Africa - the extent of urban poverty, the challenges the government faces in trying to tackle the issue and the dangers created by expectations. The cars, once symbols of wealth and grandeur for rich whites, are now limited to short rides within Daveyton for five rand (Dh1.8) or to nearby Twa-Twa for seven rand. And despite their years of service, they are under threat from the forces of progress. The word "taxi" has a very different meaning in South Africa than elsewhere. Rather than a vehicle available for private hire, to and from a specific destination, South African taxis ply specific routes and are shared by several passengers, setting off only when full - and the four customer spaces in the Chevrolets are often occupied by six or seven people. Most of the industry uses minibuses in various stages of dilapidation, with drivers notorious among other road users for their cavalier attitudes to road safety and markings. Control of routes is fiercely fought over between different organisations, and in a crime-racked country, disputes regularly explode into violence, even shootings. Even so, with limited bus service and an even smaller rail network, minibuses are the main method of transport for the vast numbers of South Africans who cannot afford to buy their own vehicle. In an effort to bring the system under some form of control - there are about 100,000 licensed minibuses, and an unknown number of illegal ones - the government has set up a "recapitalisation" programme. Whatever their condition, as long as they are capable of moving and have official papers, minibuses can be handed in for destruction, in exchange for a down payment of 50,000 rand towards a new vehicle. As of last week, more than 21,500 vehicles have been scrapped and R1 billion paid out. Now taxi associations want the scheme expanded to cover car taxis. "I think this year is the last year or maybe next year," said Joseph Xhose, 60, who drives a 1973 Chevrolet. It is a scheme that could enhance travel for the poorest South Africans, although it amounts to a huge state subsidy for private businesses. Philip Taaibosch, secretary general of the South African National Taxi Council, said: "The programme is trying to improve the taxi industry and Santaco has been very supportive from the word go. "We are transporting people mostly from the rural areas and poor communities, people who are not even employed. This is part and parcel of the responsibility of government. The taxi people have no other source of assistance except to be the funders of their own vehicle." Already, many owners in Daveyton have taken matters into their own hands, and a row of small, new Toyota Avanzas - which cost R130,000 each, with a deposit of R30,000 - takes up part of the taxi station. Some welcome the prospect of change. "They don't have to be used any more, they are old, they are not roadworthy at all," said Bongiwe Shibane, 16, a student, sitting in the back of a Chevrolet. "I think they should subsidise new taxis." But sometimes the appearance of progress belies the reality. Michael Mandla, 45, switched to an Avanza and has been shocked by the instalment payments on his new car. "We suffer," he said. "I'm sorry." "People want to change, but I like this car," said Patrick Xhosa, 63, whose Chevrolet still has two white-walled tyres. "I drive Chev since the age of 16; my life is Chev. From 1974 to 2008 everything is working here." He turned the ignition without a key, bent down to hot-wire the car, and drove away. sberger@thenational.ae