Taxis at heart of fire

Dontse Yakhe resident William Makune lost everything in the fire.

The fire that left hundreds of Dontse Yakhe residents homeless this week can be traced to a growing taxi war between two taxi associations.

Although the fire department says it is still investigating the cause of Monday’s fire it was the result of arson, with the home of a taxi driver allegedly torched after being doused in petrol.

The fire spread quickly, destroying hundreds of shacks in Dontse Yakhe. Many of the fire victims lost everything, just as they had almost a year ago when the March 11 fire left thousands destitute.

Tensions have been high in the local taxi industry in the past two years, primarily over servicing the Hout Bay-Claremont taxi rank route. The Hout Bay-Wynberg Taxi Association, which largely oversees minibus and long-distance taxis, and the Hout Bay Taxi Association, comprising mostly sedan taxis, have been at loggerheads over the route.

These tensions escalated dramatically last Friday, February 9, when members of the Hout Bay-Wynberg Taxi Association conducted taxi searches in Hout Bay in an effort to stamp out rogue drivers not permitted to work in the village. However, members of the Hout Bay Taxi Association took exception to the move.

It was in this atmosphere that Mongezi Makhebe, a taxi driver who only recently joined the Hout Bay-Wynberg Taxi Association, says he was targeted and his home torched.

“When the Claremont route was opened a few years ago, I was an individual taxi driver. Some of the leaders of the sedan taxi association allowed operators like me to drive the route, but some of their members didn’t want that,” Mr Makhebe said.

“There was a lot of fighting about this. Eventually to settle this issue, an agreement was reached that only cars from the Wynberg and Hout Bay taxi associations could operate on the Claremont route. Because of all that happened with the Hout Bay Taxi Association, I decided to not drive my taxi anymore. I didn’t drive for three years.”

This year, however, he decided to join the Hout Bay-Wynberg Taxi Association, and last Wednesday, February 7, he was back on the road transporting passengers.

“I was allowed to drive the Hout Bay-Wynberg and Wynberg-Hout Bay route, as well as drive long distance trips to the Eastern Cape.”

On Friday, he said, he and other members of the Wynberg association conducted operations in Hout Bay to root out operators working for neither association but were nevertheless working in Hout Bay. This was to ensure these rogue elements were not “stealing customers”.

“During the operation one of our taxis accidentally hit one of the sedans. We explained what we were doing to the driver, and he seemed to accept that. But the news of this spread, and the next thing the Hout Bay Taxi Association leaders were telling their drivers they were under attack.

“The next thenThen the Hout Bay association arrived to ask us why we were intimidating them. We explained our situation and then the police arrived. We went to the station and explained to them what was happening, and that satisfied them. We thought that was the end of it.”

However, after midnight on Monday, Mr Makhebe woke up to the smell of smoke at his Dontsa Yakhe home, which he shares with his wife and 10 other family members.

“There was fire at the front of the shack, and we all ran outside. Everything was burning and everyone was screaming. When I went outside, there was a very strong smell of petrol. And when I tried to pour water on the flames, it wouldn’t work. There was petrol everywhere.”

Mr Makhebe said he did not know who exactly set his home on fire, but he alleged it was people from the Hout Bay Taxi Association.

“They are jealous of me, because I used to be an individual operator and now I am with the Wynberg association and I am driving routes,” he said.

“But now I have nothing, except the clothes on my back.”

Thembi Gwabani, secretary of the Hout Bay Taxi Association, said Mr Makhebe had come to them, alleging one of its members was responsible for the arson.

However, he said he could guarantee that the association had nothing to do with the matter.

“I cannot confirm that one of our members did this. If that happened, then it is clearly that person acting in their personal capacity. The Hout Bay Taxi Association had nothing to do with this,” he said.

“In fact, we have no problem with the Hout Bay-Wynberg Taxi Association. If they want to have new members, that has nothing to do with us.”

Mr Gwabani said the events of Friday had been a “misunderstanding” that was sorted out.

“They were looking for small vehicles that were transporting passengers long distances to places like Khayelitsha. Our problem with that was that they had not informed us about the operation. But we met with them, and it was cleared up.”

Charmaine Bailey, spokesperson for the Hout Bay-Wynberg Taxi Association, said she did not known anybody of Mr Makhebe’s name.

She confirmed that her association and the Hout Bay Taxi Association shared the Claremont route, with five minibus taxis and five sedans operating at any one time.

She added that members routinely conducted operations to see if drivers were operating without permission on the Hout Bay-Wynberg route.

Mr Makhebe was yet to be registered with the Wynberg-Hout Bay Taxi Association as he had only joined the organisation last week.

For many who also lost their homes as the fire spread, their ordeal was all too familiar.

Boniswa Xala, a Dontsa Yakhe resident of 20 years, has lost her shack to fire in three successive years – 2016, 2017 and 2018.

While she did not know what started the blaze, she called on new ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa to ensure residents received proper houses.

Doctor Matomane, whose home occursis metres away from the razed area, said it was “unacceptable” that a taxi war should impact on the people of the area.