MASERU – After losing his job on the mines in South Africa, Limpho Loke invested his life savings in what was then a lucrative taxi business.
Five years ago, Loke then 56 bought a 4+1 taxi which sustained his modest lifestyle as he used to make enough money to look after his family.
For a while the business flourished and he bought a second taxi which encouraged him to throw caution to the winds to focus all his energies into the industry.
On a good day he used to take home between M400 and M500, depending on the time of the month.
But this success was short-lived.
Today, business has become sluggish as profits have nosedived and fending for his family has become a struggle.
This is because of the recent flooding of 4+1 taxis on the narrow roads of Maseru, causing traffic jams.
“Currently, we fight for passengers and business has dropped so much that taking home the money I used to make daily is a struggle. On a good day I only take M200 home while on some days I just make M100 which I normally use to buy fuel.
“As though the struggle on the roads is not enough, most cars on the roads are not licenced to carry passengers. New taxi routes are created outside designated zones as passengers prefer to board taxis at places convenient to them allowing pirate taxis to muscle in on the action.
“Business is slower and crime is increasing as most pirate operators hijack passengers, steal from them and kill people. As a result, people fear using 4+1 taxis,” he said.
Besides these challenges pirate taxi operators do not pay tax while licenced operators discharge their tax obligations to the state.
“With the already congested roads in Maseru, the taxi industry is a challenge unlike in the past when the taxi industry was a money-making machine. Now with pirates outnumbering licensed operators the future of the industry is so bleak that giving up on the business has crossed my mind on several occasions,” Loke said.
He said competition was so cutthroat that leaving home every morning to ply his usual route was now a herculean task, adding his headache had been worsened by private car owners offering lifts to the public to make extra money.
Some unscrupulous pirates were also painting the yellow strip on their vehicles to throw-off the police and attract passengers.
But the copy cats blame the department of Traffic and Transport for “forcing” them to “cheat”.
Thabo Liau, who plies the Leqele route, has been waiting for his road permit for two years now.
After queuing at the Traffic offices for months to no avail, he decided to break the law to survive.
“Waiting for the papers meant that my family went to bed hungry and my children faced the spectre of dropping out of school. I think taking passengers even though I have no papers was the sensible thing for me to do even though I have to constantly dodge traffic officers on the roads. We all have to survive, one way or the other,” Liau said.
He, however, admitted that the taxi industry has become so crowded that only the fittest survive.
Lesotho Taxi Association spokesman for the central region, Lebohang Moea, said pirate taxis were not only a menace to the industry but also placed passengers’ lives at risk.
“It has come to our realisation that more deaths and crime have been reported since pirate taxis entered the arena.
“As taxi owners and drivers we will do everything we can to ensure roads are safe and only those that are legally permitted to take passengers should be allowed on the roads,” she said.
“Cars will only be allowed to take passengers from legally selected stops by the Maseru City Council (MCC),” Moea said.
Traffic and Transport Commissioner, Mathabo T’sosane, said MCC and taxi associations were planning a joint operation to rid the roads of pirate taxis.
“The operation will be long term and will run continuously to ensure that pirate cars are removed from the roads,” she noted.
She warned commuters not to use pirate taxis stressing these are usually unsafe and uninsured to carry passengers.
She said: “Since it has become hard for passengers to identify legally permitted taxis, they should pay attention to details and ensure that a 4+1 taxi has a yellow belt, a D permit or C permit for mini bus taxis with a triangular disc that is normally placed on the taxi’s screen and route board for mini bus taxis are displayed.”
Ts’osane, however, admitted the Traffic and Transport department takes too long to issue permits and number plate numbers.
“Delays in releasing documents is not the reason pirating has dominated the taxi industry, these people deliberately avoid being legalised so that they do not pay tax.
“As I speak now, we have passed the challenge where we were struggling to give out documents, we now have boxes full of licenses and number plates that the owners have not collected.
“I believe that if people were determined to get their documents, they should follow up after registration,” she said.
“Pirating has dominated the taxi industry so much that it makes managing legalised taxis difficult.
“The owners of these cars do not even hire drivers but drive for themselves. They try by all means to avoid expenses,” she said.
She warned that anyone found driving a pirate taxi would face the full wrath of the law.
“If a taxi or car is found picking up passengers at illegal taxi stops they will be charged as well. We plead with passengers to help us eradicate this menace. Passengers help these pirate taxis because they catch lifts with them.”
She added that while the operation was running, the department of Traffic and Transport would ensure that processing of documents is speeded up.