By Teboho Sertutla
It is Friday month end and I hop into a cab (one of those known as 4+1s) between 8:00am and 9:00am at the main bus stop of Tsenola in Maseru district. I am headed to town.
As usual, a tout is seen around calling on potential passengers to board the taxi. There are two of us already seated in this vehicle that is seemingly unlicensed to operate as a public transportation.
Just before we leave for the city centre, the driver takes out a few coins (apparently 1 Loti or M2) and hands them to the tout.
This is a whole day’s job out of which the touts make quick money. They are popularly known as tollgates. The amount to be paid out is dependent on the distance of the travel and the number of passengers attracted to board the taxi.
As the driver makes his way for the city centre, there are two more seats left vacant. But as we drive on, the driver manages to ‘garner’ two other passengers.
As required by the regulations, the cabs are to have yellow bands on the sides and on the bonnet, apart from the D-permits issued by the department of transport. But this one had none, a clear indication that it was not licensed to ferry commuters.
This taxi is one of the many that have flooded the public roads, transporting passengers to and from their destinations in various areas.
The driver appears relaxed as he fearlessly drives along the normal route that usually has a presence of traffic police officers. The short trip to the city centre is successfully completed as we alight at a make shift taxi rank.
It is at this unauthorised rank where several touts roam around looking for passengers to board the illegal taxis. The reward from the driver is dependent on the number of passengers lured for boarding.
The rank is regulated by numerous ‘tollgates’ who also make a quick buck in exchange for passengers heading home from the Pitso Ground area.
Not only do these touts look for passengers, they also operate as look-outs for traffic police trying to weed out piracy.
Sometimes the officers conduct random visits to these unlawful ranks in an attempt to root out the practice.
The phenomenon of public transport piracy is rife on various routes with Tṧenola being the most hit around the urban territory.
A similar scenario plays out upon boarding another taxi back to Tṧenola with touts once again cashing in at the Pitso Ground illegal taxi rank.
Subsequently, a return back to Maseru becomes a menace.
Upon spotting a traffic officer riding on a bike, the driver manoeuvres into the Mohalalitoe residential area.
Having escaped the wrath of the traffic police officer by a whisker, the driver remarks: “He is crazy if he thinks he can catch up with me. But I am not sure if he noticed my car’s registration plates.”
The road traffic violations by the unlicensed public transport operators have angered the Maseru Region Transport Operators (MRTO). They bitterly complained that piracy was hitting hard on their business.
The operators accused the department of transport of delays in issuing out D-permits to the new owners despite having previously promised to address the backlog.
However, the MRTO spokesperson, Lebohang Moea has previously argued that those entrusted with the responsibility to enforce compliance with traffic regulations on public transport such as the police, are the ones who operate unauthorized public transport and continue to engage in piracy.
The MRTO believed that most of the pirating vehicles are owned by some of the law enforcement officers such as police and army personnel.
The operators also accuse the traffic police of taking bribes or outright extortion, thereby contributing to the proliferation of the unlawful practices.
But others are owned by ordinary citizens who have also resorted to both legal and unauthorized businesses at the same time.
“If you operate according to the law all the time, I guarantee that there is no way you will make it with all this mess in the taxi industry,” one of the operators who owns both legal and illegal cabs claimed, speaking on condition of anonymity.
He revealed that he has been struggling to obtain a D-permit for almost a year. But his colleagues have told him they had to ‘offer an incentive’ to the department officials to speed up the processing of the certificates (permits).
“I doubt if some of the passengers are even aware of the legit taxi platforms because there are so many illegal ranks,” one of the taxi operators suggested, adding that legitimate operators were also tempted to try out the practice.
“They also stand a good chance of making good returns although piracy may put the lives of the passengers at risk,” the operator lamented.
Also taking on condition of anonymity for fear of exposing himself to the authorities and losing his job, one driver said low pay by taxi owners is a major factor leading to drivers breaking the law.
He added that some drivers were not licensed to drive public transport vehicles even though the vehicles themselves are legit.
But another driver argues that duly recognized ranks do become a hotspot for car hijackings by perpetrators who pretend to be passengers.
He suggested that some of the drivers are quite competence at driving but cannot afford to pay the fees required to obtain the proper papers.
The fact that all the people in the story were adamant on anonymity is a sign that something big and bad has pervaded the taxi industry, and is so deep-rooted that everyone knows about it but no one wants to act upon it.