Khayelitsha taxi owners: crime-fighters or vigilantes?
But their methods have caused controversy.
"In just one week, they have done the work of six months," says Fikile Mriba, the vice-chairman of the Wynberg route at Khayelitsha’s Site C taxi rank.
“This gang thing was getting out of hand, with our children joining gangs at a young age. We decided as taxi owners to sit down and come up with a solution after getting numerous complaints and requests from the community to help stop all of this,” said Mriba. He said they approached the police and told them about this and they were given permission to intervene on condition that no violence would be used.
There are 16 taxi routes running from the Site C taxi rank. Four members have been taken from each of those routes. These members then gather at 9pm in their private cars with whips and start patrolling different sections of Khayelitsha.
“We don’t just go around beating up anyone we find roaming the streets at night. We specifically target those boys that are always sitting on street corners. We approach them and ask what they are doing. If they cannot provide an answer, we reprimand them. Some even go as far as running away when they see us, which causes suspicion. In that case we chase them and take them to our offices,” explained Mriba.
The office situated at the taxi rank has two rooms. One is used as a normal office while the other is called the “Surgery”. In the surgery is where the “disciplining” takes place. “We beat them in there,” Mriba explained.
SAPS spokesperson FC van Wyk explained, "Police have no knowledge of such a room as stated in your enquiry. Should this be a fact, it is definitely against the law and will be dealt with by the full force of the law as it relates to vigilantism. Police will however follow-up on this information."
Another SAPS spokesperson Andre Traut explained, "SAPS welcome initiatives to address the crime situation in our respective communities, on condition that these initiatives are conducted within the ambit of the law." But he cautioned that vigilantism was condemned in the "strongest possible terms" and SAPS would not hesitate to act against people who took the law into their own hands.
Just last week a group of taxi owners went to Masiyile High School in Khayelitsha after hearing that a number of learners there were gangsters and were using muti. When they arrived at the school they spoke to the principal. They they went from class to class and performed searches. Weapons and muti were confiscated from some of the learners.
Mriba said that they heard from the community that these medicines, which are obtained from traditional healers, kept a person safe from any kind of harm and made a person invincible. One in particular was in a small glass bottle, with a black cap and a red liquid substance inside. It is usually attached to a chain and worn around the neck. One teenager who had this exact same medicine confiscated from him put up a fight with the taxi owners and begged them not to take the substance. Weapons that are confiscated regularly include knives, pangas, axes and butcher knives. These are usually hidden under containers, underneath their clothes or given to the girls to keep because they will not be searched.
“We are tired of this and we will do everything in our power to stop it. The community has our details and they call us when there is a problem. We get a range of problems reported to us: mugging, robberies, stabbings and even drug use,” said Mribi.
A resident from Town Two, Khayelitsha, asked the taxi owners to help with the problems that she is having with her 15-year-old son. The Grade 9 pupil who attends Bulumko High School was expelled after not attending a single class this year. She said her son used to wake up in the morning, get dressed and go to school. But the minute school would start, he would leave. She reported the matter to Codeta who intervened and went to speak to the principal. The child was allowed back, but is currently not attending as he is being treated in Du Noon because he suffers from hallucinations.
“That boy is using drugs, tik to be exact. His mother believes that he is possessed by demonic spirits, but these children are using tik. Hallucinations are one of the symptoms of tik use,” said Mriba.
Social Justice Coalition's (SJC) junior researcher, Axolile Notywala said, "Taxi owners and drivers intervening was a good thing because they could reach where police normally cannot. The frustration that most of the community has is that the police are not doing enough, so having the taxi owners helps. I wouldn't say that crime has gone down in Khayelitsha since they intervened because many crimes go unreported so statistics wouldn't show, but the work that the taxi owners do is very good as long as they do not use violence," said Notywala.
Doron Isaacs, coordinator at Equal Education (EE), said that it worried him that taxi drivers were being allowed to go to schools carrying weapons and searching learners. "The police have failed to investigate the rise in gang violence in a professional way. It is important to understand that the drivers have the support of the community," he explained. He said that he does not approve what the drivers are doing as it is vigilantism, but says it is important that we understand the reasons they are doing it. He added that two ways that gang violence in Khayelitsha could be stopped were community policing and organisations like EE and SJC working together to come up with ways to stop it.
This article was edited extensively after it was first published, because SAPS responded to a GroundUp question about taxi drivers administering beatings only after our original deadline. Our apologies.