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”).