Seminar: Violence, Urbanization and Rationalization in Cape Town's Taxi Industry (1990-2010)


Video duration: 
47 min.

Every day, thousands of minibus taxis roam South Africa's streets, hooting, swerving between lanes and endangering the safety and comfort of their passengers. Blom Hansen (2006) argued that the South African taxi world conveys a sense of freedom, a place where rules do not matter, where taxi drivers operate in a niche that allows for new hybrid identities and other expressions far away from political and economic constraints. But there is another side to the taxi world: it is highly constrained by taxi associations, political institutions, government regulations and financial limitations. What are these freedoms that Cape Town's taxi owners and their associations represent and how can we connect these to the political and economic constraints that taxi owners must face?

Zaloom's image of the maverick aesthetic of future traders in Chicago and London helps to understand the contradictions between freedom and constraints in the taxi world. The maverick aesthetic that Zaloom encountered might also offer insight into the taxi world where freedom and audacity are intertwined with severe political and economic constraints. What do taxi entrepreneurs and drivers convey when they transgress legal and social norms, when they intimidate taxi entrepreneurs, drivers and passengers, and when they introduce themselves by explaining how violent they can be? It appears that these are not so much expressions of freedom but rather displays of authority that are at the heart of survival in the taxi world.

Historical analysis of taxi associations and their conflicts reveals that the rural-urban divide, the old apartheid division between a black population with urban rights and a black population that was denied those rights and was confined to the Bantustans, was at the heart of political and economic rivalries. These experiences and memories still inform contemporary struggles among taxi associations or over government-initiated rationalization projects.

This seminar is based on interviews with taxi entrepreneurs, drivers and members of taxi associations that live and operate in Cape Town. Most of them belong to the Cape Amalgamated Taxi Association (CATA), the successor of Western Cape Black Taxi Association (Webta) and the interviews were held between 2005 and 2010, mostly in Khayelitsha, Crossroads and Nyanga. Some of the men and women interviewed were key players in the taxi world and were often intimidating figures who had been imprisoned for assault or murder. For safety reasons, my research assistant Edith Moyikwa accompanied me on research trips. I also made use of policy reports, newspaper articles and the TRC hearings about taxi violence.


Dr. Erik Bähre ( is Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology at Leiden University and a research fellow at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities and Social Sciences (NIAS). He specializes in South Africa and has worked extensively in the townships and squatter settlements of Cape Town. His main research interests are how dramatic economic change affects social relations, and financial mutuals among neighbours and migrants that provide commercial insurance, social grants and entrepreneurship. He completed his PhD in 2002 at the University of Amsterdam and has since worked at the University of Natal (now University of KwaZulu Natal), University College Utrecht, the University of Amsterdam and the Department of Anthropology at the London School of Economics. He has been awarded a KNAW NIAS fellowship to write a monograph manuscript on insurance in South Africa (2011-2012).


Date, time and location

31 May 2012
15.30 - 17.00u
Pieter de la Courtgebouw / Faculty of Social Sciences, Wassenaarseweg 52, 2333 AK Leiden
5B04 (fifth floor)