PETER ATTARD MONTALTO: Steering through the politics of the Cape Town taxi strike

There was an absolutely glorious amount of ‘what-about-ary’ last week with the Cape Town taxi strike. What about accepting we need some informality in the taxi industry? What about the mayoral committee member who said quite a number of rather odd things? What about that the national rules aren’t imposed elsewhere? What about the views of the national government in a matter that is the purview of the city?

I found this event so fascinating because it was an extremely rare example of a discrete localised pure political fight between two sets of actors.

This might sound odd — but most issues we assume are local are either dull and process-based about coalition machinations in Gauteng, say. They are complex and the public doesn’t really care, or they are broad, drawn out and multitudinous, like rent extraction cases or an amorphous lack of service delivery or water, or load-shedding. In SA, lest we forget, crises are generally hugely drawn out and many members of the public just getting used to them. The Tshwane water crisis didn’t particularly count because of a lack of firm evidence of what happened while corruption allegations flew — which elicit eye rolls more than a meaningful response.

The taxi issue is interesting precisely because it was a short-lived, intense battle at a local level about practical issues (impounding vehicles and road safety) with large political and ideological issues at stake and the raw politics of taking public opinion with you or not.

Both sides made missteps. But the taxi industry’s were larger and ultimately deeper in terms of the reading of public opinion.

We are likely to see more of these confrontations in the run-up to the elections as more point scoring by all sides is attempted. For the DA this round was easy: it was siding with the rule of law and the public as passengers. Yet it showed how a party such as the ANC can easily misstep on these sharply focused issues where the historic associations with the taxi industry caused a knee-jerk reaction out of step with the public opinion.

Herein perhaps is another important point for the path to the elections. We are always told how formidable the ANC election machine is — and indeed given its breadth and organisation abilities, the ANC performed roughly flat in the 2021 local election in terms of recent by-election swings. Yet such a machine cannot do anything if the fundamental message in these local pure political fights go against them and the electorate start to think about other choices. Or, of course, the “favourite party”, called “not voting”.

Application of the law

The taxi situation, however, was a fight about a simple baseline — the application of the law and so ultimately was about defending some basic sense of status quo (though some people might say “status quo anti”).

Transforming the urban landscape that still has such deep apartheid clefts in it has seen exceptionally limited progress in the past 30 years. Hence the power of the taxi industry.

A paper from the SA Reserve Bank (SARB) last week made the same age-old points again on the topic as relates to labour markets — barriers to labour market entry and job searches are far too high based on transport costs that are linked to historic urban disparities. Much of the rest of the paper was SARB’s usual sensibleness on labour market issues.

The taxi strike looks small in this context of solving a much wider, deeper problem. A line has been held but the hard work starts here. It is a reminder that solving logistics, electricity and crime crises is just one set of crises. There are education, transport, productivity, labour markets and other crises to deal with as well.

There is unlikely to be significant disagreement into the elections among many political voices on electricity or logistics (once the government’s road map paper is published). Similarly, every party will have much to say about education and transport — at least in their manifestos.

Going by previous election cycles, however, we are unlikely to have significant policy discussions on these knotty issues. The ANC’s record can be attacked on some of these things. But it’s hard to have a serious and detailed policy discussion on various issues that will take not just one but three or four election cycles to start to properly get to grips with (given the fiscal constraints on moving faster in part, as well as capacity and all the other usual problems). These problems are also simply too big.

Network industry reform (telecoms, electricity, water and logistics) are “easy” to solve because you get huge multiplicative effects from centralised, landscape forming reforms when laws and processes are changes and regulatory and institutional structures are changed.

Solving transport, though, is an often localised, messy and complex problem about various communities. Political capital — the calculation no doubt goes — is much better on a short-term slanging match than on something more substantive and long term when you are unlikely to get much pay-off for reform within the next political cycle.

And so the election battles will rage on things such as immigration no doubt, some flare-up about policing (with little to say about how policing should change), some cases of corruption and some mayoral dramas in Gauteng. But a sense of getting somewhere will be lost.

We are likely to get overwrought claims of short-term lulls in
load-shedding being the end of the electricity crisis. Such debates seem to see neither side land a blow and I am sceptical that such claims and counterclaims can really move the dial more than a flicker either way for the ANC.

The taxi strike is interesting in this regard. Is a marginal ANC voter in the Western Cape affected by the strike more likely to not vote now after the ANC’s foot-in-mouth on the issue? Probably. Is that person more likely to vote DA? Maybe, but history shows this kind of vote switching is unlikely — including in by-elections data. The ANC share of the vote in the province is also small. Is an ANC voter in KwaZulu-Natal going to be less likely to vote ANC and more likely to vote DA or IFP even based on a Western Cape event? I am sceptical of that.

Instead, longer-term demographic socioeconomic trends dominate the trend in the ANC vote share vs people not voting in particular, while opposition parties fight it out for relatively few new marginal voters switching between them and switching from not voting. A younger population less likely to vote is still a big factor. Broad views of trust in general — in parties, in personalities — are likely to continue to dominate and are harder to shift — especially with the noise levels increasing.

• Peter Attard Montalto leads on political economy, markets and the just energy transition at Krutham.

This article first appeared in Business Day.