The industry transformed and captured through violence: hitmen empowering themselves

24 May 2018 - 09:30

The taxi industry in South Africa is estimated to be a multibillion-rand industry that carries approximately 65% of the 2,5 billion annual passenger trips around the country.

The taxi industry in South Africa is estimated to be a multibillion-rand industry that carries approximately 65% of the 2,5 billion annual passenger trips around the country. However, this industry has been dogged by a reputation for violent confrontations between competing owners and shaped by exclusion from the formal economy since its inception. In addition, the taxi industry in South Africa is still largely unregulated, and has festered challenges such as unlicensed vehicles, reckless driving and the general safety of commuters.

While this industry is highly competitive and has lucrative routes, both over long and short distances, it has been tainted by conflicts which in many cases have resulted in death. Violent incidents associated with the taxi industry dating back from the apartheid era are more prevalent, more regionalized, and more complex and are often associated with criminal violence. Kwazulu Natal’s taxi industry is one that is heavily affected by violence, which has resulted in many recorded deaths since the year 2000.

The recent study by UCT’s Centre for Criminology, the Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime (GITOC) and the Safety and Violence Initiative, reveals that 40% of the targeted assassinations occurred in KwaZulu Natal, the highest in the country; followed by Gauteng, at 25% percent; and the Western Cape, at 14%. Furthermore, a breakdown of targeted assassinations by category, showed that the taxi industry accounted for the largest number of assassinations (43%), followed by the political assassinations (22%) and targeted hits in the organised crime sector (22%).

Although taxi violence occurs in different forms, hitmen, commonly referred to as izinkabi(plural) or inkabi (singular), are hired to eliminate rivals in the industry. These hitmen are mostly sourced from the rural areas of Kwazulu Natal, such as eMsinga. In the midst of this violence, researchers have noted that the minibus taxi industry has invited and nurtured a cadre of hitmen who are available for hire when conflicts over routes arise or when power struggles amongst association members ensue. Unfortunately, in some cases, these fights spill over to affect the safety of commuters and bystanders.

Hiring izinkabi to eliminate someone is the preferred method of resolving issues in the taxi industry environment and political sphere. In this context, there have been occasions where competing taxi associations cooperated with gangsters in their attempt to gain control over the most profitable transport routes. Consequently, power dynamics in the industry are slowly beginning to shift, and the industry insiders, the old guard, are fearing for the worst in the near future.

Indeed, the research interviews from Kwazulu Natal’s taxi industry suggests that some members of the industry breed izinkabi and by implication provide them with sustainable work as security guards, bodyguards or even enable them to become taxi owners. However, the danger is when there is a lack of opportunity for the generated pool of hitmen, the tide will start to turn, and the industry will become a battlefield for the hitmen. Those taxi owners who hire the hitmen are slowly being phased out of the business, and consequently fear for their lives.

Despite previous studies in this industry since its booming years, taxi violence and killings have proven to be a complex, multidimensional social phenomenon. Indeed, "the development of the taxi industry in South Africa reveals a complex narrative characterized by a mix of brutal violence, politics, and fierce competition1".

If the nurseries of the hitmen, which are predominantly hired from the hostels or rural areas of Kwazulu Natal and the gang-afflicted areas such as Umlazi, are not discouraged and completely eroded, it will be difficult to deal with taxi industry violence. Well thought policy measures must be put in place to limit violent competition within the taxi industry. And lastly, state security agencies must put in place proactive measures to address violence in this industry, rather than resorting to reactionary measures that yield no effective results.

1. Mark Shaw, Hitmen for Hire: Exposing South Africa’s Underworld, Jeppestown: Jonathan Ball Publishers, 2017, p. 63.