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GRAY ZONE

Social distancing is wrecking the economics of South Africa’s most dysfunctional—and vital—public transport

Passengers are seen at taxi rank just before Johannesburg locked down to stop the spread of coronavirus on March 25.
Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko
Limited space to manoeuver.

Across South Africa, it’s a common sight to see dozens of people standing on the side of roads with their fingers up—“going downtown”—to hail minibus taxis. Some 250,000 taxis travel routes within and between South Africa’s cities and townships, across provinces and even across the border, accounting for the vast majority of work and education trips by public transport.

But when the country went into a strict, military-patrolled lockdown in March, the impact was visceral. The government restricted the number of hours a minibus taxi can ply, and capped the number of passengers they could carry. In an instant, the pandemic upended the economics of an industry based on cramming people in as tightly as possible. Even now, with South Africa’s lockdown dramatically eased, passengers per taxi have been capped at 70%.

“It’s been really, really bad,” said Themba Makhubu, a taxi owner who is only making a fraction of the R600 a day ($34) he usually earns from his drivers for trips running from Soweto township to the Johannesburg city center. “There was a point where you cannot, as an owner, use all your taxis. You are limited to a certain number so you have to choose who works and who doesn’t work.”

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