According to official estimates, South Africa’s minibus taxis transport over 15 million commuters every day. Women rely on the taxis to get them to and from work, home or wherever they need to go. But when a woman gets into a taxi, she can’t take it for granted that she will reach her destination safely. For at least the past decade, the industry has been marred by cases of sexual harassment and rape perpetrated by drivers and the line marshals working at taxi stands.
In an attempt to make taxi rides safer for women, the industry’s governing structure, the South African National Taxi Association Council (SANTACO) and the NGO Sonke Gender Justice have been working together on a nationwide campaign aimed at educating taxi drivers on gender-based violence (GBV) and gender equality. Through the Safe Ride Campaign, activists also provide female commuters with information on where they can get help if they experience harassment or sexual abuse.
According to reports, the incidents often happen in public, either at taxi stations or inside minibus taxis – which can hold up to 16 passengers – within full view of other commuters.
That’s what happened to Nwabisa Ngcukana, who was stripped, assaulted and paraded naked at a Johannesburg taxi station in 2008. Local media reported that the perpetrators – taxi drivers and street vendors – said they had attacked her because she was wearing a miniskirt.
Three years later, at the same taxi station, two teenage girls were harassed by a large group of men for the same reason. According to reports, the men groped the girls and took pictures of them with their cell phones before the police intervened and escorted the girls home. In both cases, no arrests were made.
There have also been cases of serial taxi driver rapists, including Vuledzani Ramulifho, who in 2013 was found guilty on 43 counts relating to the robbery and rape of 14 women, and Booi and Rodgers Makhubela, a father-and-son pair who in 2011 were sentenced to a collective 26 life terms for robbing and raping 10 women.
Whenever these stories come out, there is public outcry, but the attacks continue, says Zoleka Mali, a counselor at the nonprofit Mosaic Centre for Gender-Based Violence in Cape Town. She says that, on average, each week she comes across three or four cases of sexual harassment or rape at the hands of taxi drivers.
Mali explains that in most cases, women find themselves alone with the taxi driver, either because they are the last passenger or because they boarded an empty taxi. The drivers then take them to a secluded area to attack them.
“One victim actually boarded a taxi with a driver and another male passenger, only to realize that the two were working together,” Mali says. “They robbed her and drove her to the bush where they both raped her.”
She says her nonprofit now advises women not to board empty taxis or taxis carrying only male passengers.
A 2013 study for Curationis, the scholarly journal for the Democratic Nursing Organisation of South Africa, looked into the sexual beliefs of taxi drivers in KwaZulu-Natal province and found that 48 percent of those surveyed believed there are situations when women deserve to be beaten, while more than half (54.3 percent) said that if “insulted” when demanding sex, they would “defend [their] reputation with force, if necessary.”
The coauthor of the report, Busisiwe Ncama, says such beliefs are not unique to the taxi industry, but rather “reflect the attitudes of men who are in a similar situation as them; young, poorly educated and in informal employment.”
The only way to change those attitudes to rape, Ncama says, is for the government and activist groups to address widespread social inequalities, such as lack of education, poverty and unemployment, while also challenging cultural ideas of patriarchy and masculinity.
To that end, SANTACO has started an outreach campaign at taxi ranks, distributing flyers and posters with information on GBV, and speaking to drivers about GBV in groups and one on one. The group is also taking mobile units around the country’s taxi ranks, with TV playing video confessionals from taxi drivers convicted of rape. And it has set up mobile stations at various taxi ranks where women can report abuse and taxi drivers can obtain information on GBV.
“[Taxi drivers] need to be aware that the way someone dresses has nothing to do with them,” says Thabisho Molelekwa, chief strategic officer for SANTACO. “It’s the woman’s right as an individual to dress the way she wants.”