Updated: Aug 8
Many of us have surely been watching the smoke and chaos surrounding the recent taxi cartel protests. Buses have been burnt, roads blockaded, motorists have been attacked, and the usually celebratory acts of recreational violence that accompany all of this. Questions surrounding this might well ask what the reasons for this outburst are.
Well, there don’t really seem to be any – the cartels are objecting to having laws enforced, mostly road safety laws. Their demands include a return of all impounded vehicles, legal immunity, and a special dedicated traffic lane on all roads. Goofy nonsense.
Alderman JP Smith has been made a bogeyman for his threat to impound 25 taxis for every act of vandalism. Many believe this doesn’t go far enough.
For any foreigners reading this who don’t know what the taxi cartels are, the transport method of choice in South African cities is the minibus taxi, which seats around a dozen or more passengers at a time (depending on how many they manage to cram in), and are usually owned by large cartels who war over route access and generally speaking do not pay their taxes.
Taxi cartels have also been known to burn trains, assassinate bus drivers, and many other acts of commercial terrorism. But they largely act with impunity; in several cases, attempts to arrest operators or managers have resulted in police stations being rushed by dozens of thugs to liberate their colleagues.
The timing is interesting though, coming on the heels of the recent furore over the latest attention-seeking acts of Julius Malema, whose calls for genocide have been plastered all over the pages of the papers.
The ANC is particularly sensitive to foreign criticism, and capable of extreme ruthlessness in settling political disputes. Negative foreign attention is one of the few things that keeps the ANC on their toes, especially given the economic vulnerability of the country, and the fact that economic sanctions were largely responsible for achieving regime change in 1994.
The ruling party is well known to be closely connected to, and to a large extent reliant on, organised crime. Wars between different ANC factions often result in trucks being burnt, and the competition between Jacob Zuma and Cyril Ramaphosa for the party leadership in 2017 saw the largest wave of taxi violence in history.
The main forms of organised crime the ANC are involved in in the Western Cape are trucking, taxi cartels, the infamous numbers gangs, and the racketeering operations known as shack-farming.
Shack farming operates like this – a small crew will exploit the laws against forced removal (squatters’ rights are very generous in SA) by placing a small shack on some piece of turf, and then begin in the early hours of the day, to demarcate plots for shacks that will be constructed, usually very rapidly over the next couple of days. These will be hired out at around R2000 per month in Cape Town.
In other parts of the country where the ANC governs, shacks are often placed on lucrative land, where the ANC can besiege a desired property until it is sold at bargain-basement prices, before the settlers are cleared.
In the Western Cape, these settlements specifically target land which (mandated by law) is notified to the public to be intended for housing public development. This prevents the DA from providing housing for citizens, giving the ANC the opportunity to brag that their opposition does no better than they do in service provision. Many private organisations (Ndifuna Ukwazi, SERI and Reclaim the City, funded by the Open Society Foundation, among others) aggressively facilitate land invasions.
But the real indicator as to how far the ANC will go in disrupting DA-held areas is in the 2011 gang deal. Veteran journalist Sam Sole uncovered an underhanded deal between Jacob Zuma and the Cape gangs, in which they agreed to help the ANC gain votes and destabilise the Cape in exchange for effective legal immunity.
These gangs are responsible for much of the homicide in the province, and as this graph shows, the deal can be attributed with a complete reversal of the downward trend in homicide statistics in the province, which the ANC uses as counter-propaganda to denigrate the work done by the liberal opposition.
From where I sit, it seems more than likely that, given the largely unprovoked nature of the taxi violence, it serves as a smokescreen for the ANC on the international and local stage, and throws shade on their opposition, exploiting general ignorance of the fact that the police are controlled at a national level, and only very limited powers are devolved to the City of Cape Town for law enforcement.
So how does one deal with all of this?
Frankly, it is impossible to clear all this rot away so long as the Cape remains a province of South Africa. The only country which has achieved a victory against crime which can be compared to what we need down here is El Salvador.
President Bukele has become the most popular head of state on the planet, largely by arresting every single gang member in the entire country, and locking them away. This has involved the seizure of emergency powers, and the siege of whole city sectors to sweep through for arrests.
The process for achieving this was not instantaneous – several years of negotiation with the gangs, the exploitation of covid lockdown powers, and a long period of building up the paramilitary capacities of the police and military were necessary. All in all, the process took around five years, and it was expensive, and constitutionally messy.
Not the kind of thing liberals generally have the stomach for – it included the strongarming of the general assembly by a military presence, and many summary arrests without the usual due-process requirements.
But the results are impossible to argue with – El Salvador from the highest homicide rate in the world, to the lowest in the Americas. People who feared for their lives every time they stepped outside of their homes, can now go about their lives in complete peace, and their children are safe. Most would trade any number of nebulous human rights guarantees for real freedom like that.
It is not so different in the Cape, as the above homicide rate indicates.
How a free Cape would achieve this is difficult to say – not many would consider the strongarm tactics involved.
I have at times considered the use of certain other historical precedents for comparison. The British Empire’s abolition of slavery, and the Japanese empire’s expunging of the opium trade are interesting comparisons.
As most people now know, the British neutralised the slave trade, not just by bombarding slave ports and capturing slave ships across the world, but by first cutting off the capital flow at its heart – they paid off the kingpins in London, using a vast loan that was only fully paid off in 2015.
The Japanese, when conquering Korea and Taiwan, found that their subjects were hopelessly addicted to opium, and feared its spread back to the mainland. They seized the opium networks, and established a state monopoly on its distribution in the two colonies, licensing and regulating consumption in conjunction with a weaning-off process, which in only a few years, pushed opium consumption from roughly 10% of the population down to a fraction of a percentage point.
A similar approach could work in the Cape – by giving amnesty to certain larger players in organised crime, provided they declare their earnings, accept a nominal tax, and leave the industry entirely, stocks could be seized, names and locations of middlemen could be established, and the networks could be shut down, while a weaning program worked off the popular dependency on tik (methamphetamine).
Many prisons would have to be built, and a zero tolerance approach to all forms of crime would see likely 1-2% of the population placed behind bars, but this would be far cheaper, and guarantee the freedom and safety of millions. It would be far more broadly beneficial than any other welfare system, and completely transform the local economy.
As for the taxis, the cartels can simply be treated as organised crime, rounded up and dissolved - minibus taxis will continue to operate, but without the criminal organisations backing them.
It can all be done, but it can absolutely not be done without independence. Every day we remain part of this country, more people will die.
Fortunately, with the next elections coming up, the DA faces an upset – they have been declining in the polls these past few years, and now only hold on by a 3% margin.
With the pro-independence VF+, and a new, liberal-friendly Referendum Party set to launch in the next couple of months, the likelihood is that the DA will be forced to strike a deal to govern the province which will entail a referendum for Cape independence.
Given that support for independence is quite substantial, the movement now stands a significant chance of success.
It will also be the greatest lifesaver, not only from the economic and political threats of black-nationalist extremism at the national level, but from violent crime and infrastructural degradation too.
It is a miserable tragedy that the DA is opposed to this plan.