Time for the taxi industry to light the way

Date: January 1, 1970
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The power cuts had just abated when a huge blackout hit our social landscape. A standard question in opinion surveys that try to gauge where a nation stands with regard to its attitudes towards women is how citizens respond to a woman strolling down the streets in a mini-skirt. We have all been taken aback by the finding that in South Africa high proportions of men, and even some women, believe it’s an invitation to rape.

Last week such attitudes were brazenly paraded before our eyes when the Sowetan reported that a young woman was stripped and sexually assaulted for wearing a mini skirt at the Noord Street taxi rank in busy central Johannesburg.
I emphasise “reported” because it now turns out that this case is just the tip of the iceberg. Nwabisa Ngcukana, who had the courage to speak out, mentioned that three other women had suffered the same humiliation that weekend. As the phone calls have poured in on radio talk shows over the week, callers confirm that this is an every day experience for the women of Egoli- the City of Gold.
None other than Radio 702 talk show host Redi Direko broke down and cried as she remembered the daily humiliation she suffered as a teenager taking taxis until she could afford a car.  Female reporters daring to go to the scene have been warned to go away, and one had her bottom pinched, just in case she did not get the message.
Understandable skepticism hung over a meeting called by Firoz Cachalia, Member of the Executive Committee (MEC) for Safety and Security for Gauteng province with the top brass of the police, taxi associations, women and human rights groups to come up with an action plan last week.
In a land where only one in nine cases of rape get reported and only seven percent of these result in conviction, the reports sounded too much like dejavu. For example, the meeting heard that only hawkers had been arrested, because eyewitnesses refused to reveal which taxi drivers had been involved.
Of course, it would just happen that the CCTV cameras only focus on covered and not uncovered areas, so there is no independent verification when we need it. And the taxi drivers had a long list of grievances about the way taxi ranks are managed such that they have become havens of drug abusers, thugs and other scoundrels in among whom such “barbaric” behaviour becomes acceptable.
To his credit, Cachalia did not fall for this decoy. No amount of mismanagement, he stressed, could justify what amounted to a gross violation of human rights. The problem, he emphasised, is systemic. Until we address the underlying societal attitudes towards women, today it will be Noord Street, tomorrow somewhere else.
After all, he pointed out, it’s only a few months since talk shows were flooded with the story about a woman in Kwa Zulu Natal being told she could not wear trousers.
Mapule Mtintso of the Progressive Women’s Movement (PWM) weighed in. It had been eight years, she said, since the taxi associations had pledged to clean up their act. Press statements would just not wash any more.
Leading this delegation and signaling how serious the African National Congress (ANC) aligned PWM is about the issue, Mayor Gwen Ramokgopa of Tshwane had participants at several points confused as to whether she spoke as government or an non-governmental organisation. She had, it transpired, spent at least the last two days tracking down the case, and seeking an audience with the MEC; mayoral duties aside. 
As the conversation progressed, a few bright lights began to go on in the room. The taxi industry, Kubi Rama of the Gender and Media Southern Africa (GEMSA) Network pointed out, remains one of the least transformed, at least from a gender perspective. Men run taxis. They decide on the rules. If they don’t harass women themselves, they cover up for their buddies when women are being harassed. So, most women find it futile to complain.
This time, rights groups stressed, taxi drivers could not just get away with “I’m sorry.” They had to lead the way.
How? For a start, the taxi industry in South Africa, with its proud history of defying the apartheid regime, has among the widest reaches in the country. In the absence of good state public transport, taxis transport millions of South Africans every day. Often commuters spend many hours in these taxis. They listen to whatever music or talk gets served up during these rides. Every public awareness survey points to the potential role that taxis can play in promoting social messaging.
Imagine, for a moment if every taxi in South Africa carried a message on respect for women’s rights? What if the songs and stories on CDs played in taxis encouraged a public debate on our changing society rather than empty rap that sees women as objects to be used or violated?
Imagine if the taxi industry adopted its own Code of Conduct towards women and pinned this up in taxis with a number that can be called if service standards are not being met? What if the taxi rank committees set up help desks where anyone with a complaint can get immediate redress?
Ahead of a major summit that MEC Cachalia has said will take place on this issue within the next fortnight, Mayor Ramokgopa has called for all taxi ranks to be declared “hot spots” for at least a year while various groups monitor their safety for women.
The spotlight on taxi ranks and the leading role being played by local and provincial government – that are directly responsible for people’s every day lives – are long overdue. But unless the taxi industry goes from condemning isolated incidents to carrying the torch for women’s rights we will have missed a major opportunity to really turn on the lights at taxi ranks.
Colleen Lowe Morna is executive director of Gender Links, one of the organisations involved in planning the taxi and gender violence summit. This article is part of the GL Opinion and Commentary Service which sheds fresh views on everyday news.

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