Last nail in taxi industry’s coffin

Last nail in taxi industry’s coffin

MASERU-ONCE the favourite of many aspiring businesspeople, the passenger minibus business is now a shadow of its former self, with smaller vehicles taking over the roads.

Only a decade ago, many people looked to the business as a viable retirement option.
Basotho men who would have retired from South African mines would use their savings to buy minibuses to venture into the passenger transport business. Then someone introduced the 4+1 and the game changed.

The 4+1s quickly became the preferred mode of transport, presenting passengers with convenience in terms of time as it carries fewer passengers and makes a few stops along the way.
The flood of cheap imports worsened the situation for minibus operators as most people could afford to buy a 4+1 and flood the roads.

Some even sold their minibuses to buy 4+1s. Civil servants like police officers, soldiers and teachers joined the party, most operating the vehicles without proper documentation.
In some villages like Koalabata, Tsoapo-le-Bolila and Qoaling minibuses are now a thing of the past.

Matšeli Qekisi is among those desperate to exit the minibus industry eight years after joining it.
Qekisi, who joined the industry as a driver’s assistant, has been a rank inspector since 2018.

“There is no money in this industry anymore, Covid-19 worsened the situation,” Qekisi said.
According to Qekisi, who is an inspector for the Ha-Pita, Semphetenyane and Likolong route, more than 70 minibuses plied the route before.
Now, only about 30 are still operating on the route.

“Due to business nose-diving some owners sold their minibuses, while some taxis are stuck at home in need of repairs,” he said.
Over half of the conductors or assistant drivers, he said, also had to be sent home as previous Covid-19 regulations only allowed taxis to carry a maximum of nine passengers.

The daily platform fee of M20 from which his salary is paid, has also dwindled. Some owners are unable to pay platform fees.
“Times are tough, having to fuel the car, pay a driver, service it and pay the platform fee, there really isn’t much that the owner gets,” he said.

Katleho Sehole, a taxi conductor for the last four years, has resorted to hawking fruits and cigarettes when he was retrenched due to Covid-19.
His dream of buying a 4+1 like some of his colleagues has been shattered.
Sehole, a father of two, said even before Covid-19 things were already bad.
“We did not have socks money (money hidden from your boss for your personal use) like we used to and with Covid-19 socks money is history,” Sehole said.

He said previously they would fuel the car, keep the owners’ daily amount (Mocheko) and take the rest for personal use.
“It is with that money that we bought clothes or saved, that money doesn’t exist anymore,” he said.
Most minibus owners can no longer afford to pay the M50 daily wage to employees, he said.

“Some of my former colleagues during this time would take home from M20 to M50 a day. How is one supposed to feed a family with that amount? Most of us are just waiting for borders to open and maybe we will get something better on the other side of the border,” he said.

Hawking, he said, is also challenging as almost everyone who lost their jobs has joined the ranks of vendors.
“I am out of options, I got mouths to feed. The only comforting thing is that the little I make is mine.”

Lereko Qhoali drives a minibus to Lithabaneng.
He said the industry was already struggling and Covid-19 was the final nail in the coffin.
Qhoali said a taxi would make a measly M120 a day due to worsening conditions.

“From this money, there is M20 platform fee, there is fuel, there is M20 or M30 for the taxi assistant and a driver to pay for those who earn daily,” Qhoali said.
“At the end of the day there is nothing to give to the owner and yet he must pay the driver and maintain the car.”

Tseko Tseko, a 4+1 driver, was hoping this would be his last year as an employee as his two year employment working under an arrangement popularly known as Totomeng was coming to end this year.
Under the Totomeng arrangement, a driver agrees to give the vehicle owner a certain amount daily for a certain period. In exchange, the car becomes his after the agreed period.

“My boss wanted M300 per day after fueling his car,” Tseko said.
“I would work hard to surpass the daily limit so that I could make myself money because in this arrangement I did not have a salary,” he said.
Because of Covid-19, he said, he thinks he will have to work for an additional year.

“It is a daily struggle. There are too many pirates owned by law enforcement officers.”
“Police demand bribes from us daily because we are not servicing or renewing licences or disks due to lack of funds, he said.
“And then there is the Iveco (Mobile Traffic Court). It is a nightmare working on these streets.”

Leluma Maluke joined the taxi industry as a driver in 2013.
After three years, Maluke bought a 15-seater minibus from his boss for M27 000 in 2017.
Excited and ready to double his work ethic, the completion of the tarred road in Tsoapo-le-Bolila halted his plans as the avalanche of 4+1s hit the route.

By the end of 2018 there was no money to be made.
“Passengers refused to board our minibuses. They now preferred 4+1s,” said Maluke.
“We would only get passengers in the morning when taking textile workers to work and in the evenings when they came back home,” he said.
Even today there are no minibuses on that route.
With maintenance costs pilling, fuel, paying a taxi assistant, Maluke decided to get employed and drive long distance taxis with the hope that things would be better.

“The situation there was worse, I only worked for six months.”
He later managed to buy a 4+1. 
“That was when life improved,” he said, adding that he would take home an average of M300 a day.
COVID-19 restrictions have however become a new challenge, with his income dwindling to as low as M100 a day.

“Sometimes I went home empty-handed having worked only for fuel, especially during the week before month end.”
He said even though they are back to carrying a “full load”, the situation is still dire.

“People do not have money, even when we were only allowed to carry three passengers we would still go to town without any passengers.”
Lebohang Moea, Chairman of the Maseru Route Transport Operators (MRTO), said many jobs have been lost in the sector due to a combination of COVID-19 and the flooding of smaller vehicles on the road.
Moea said there are over 9 000 taxis and 4+1s in Maseru alone and over 18 000 employees.

Despite the new regulations for the purple level that allowed taxis to fill their vehicles as before, many have already gone under.
“They do not have the means to re-employ workers. During Covid-19 most drivers and their assistants were sent home, simply because there was not enough money,” Moea said.

Lemohang Rakotsoane

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