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Originally published Sunday, September 17, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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South Africa's taxi wars taking toll

When the gunmen materialized out of a soaking downpour on a Friday evening in August, weapons crackling, the taxi owner tried to run. "Unfortunately," he said, "I...

The New York Times

KHAYELITSHA, South Africa — When the gunmen materialized out of a soaking downpour on a Friday evening in August, weapons crackling, the taxi owner tried to run.

"Unfortunately," he said, "I was late."

The taxi owner is 54, a beefy man with a shaved head, propped in a chair beside his bed at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town. The seven bullet wounds in his legs are shrouded in a blanket. He may yet lose a foot, but he has other worries. "Do not put my name on any paper," he said. "If I see my name, I will hold you responsible for my death."

Melodramatic, maybe. Or maybe not. After a few years of relative calm, this nation's so-called taxi wars have flared up again in earnest.

In the past two decades, thousands of South African taxi owners, drivers and passengers have been killed and many more have been wounded in one of the strangest guerrilla wars to bedevil any nation. The combatants are rival cartels that control thousands of low-cost minibuses, or "combis," that haul a large share of South Africa's urban commuters and much of the nation's intercity traffic. Combi drivers are mostly poor, and competition is fierce. Many operate illegally, and even legitimate ones may poach others' routes to grab as many fares as possible.

The cartels have fought for years over control of lucrative routes and the drivers who serve them. In upscale Cape Town and poor suburbs such as Khayelitsha, a vast sprawl of small homes and shanties, taxi violence has claimed about 25 lives this year and stirred a growing political outcry.

The August ambush, at a taxi stand in a Khayelitsha neighborhood called Kuwait, left one taxi owner, Khonzani Mono, dead and seven people wounded. The stand is one served by the Congress for Democratic Taxi Associations, or Codeta. Just a week earlier, an executive of the rival Cape Amalgamated Taxi Association, or Cata, was fatally shot.

Violence here is the worst, but the taxi wars are a national problem. In the past 18 months, taxi shootouts have also occurred in Johannesburg and Durban. Last year, three taxi operators were killed in rural Eastern Cape Province, their Toyota sprayed with 40 bullets as they drove to a meeting to discuss taxi routes.

Indisputably, control of routes is at the core of the violence. The latest surge in Cape Peninsula killings, for example, can be traced to the opening of a shopping mall near Kraaifontein, a Cape Town suburb, which employs many workers from Khayelitsha, in the south. Codeta taxis want to take the workers directly to the mall. Cata officials insist that the approved route runs through a taxi stand at Bellville which they dominate, and that the passengers must transfer to their taxis there.

"If you try to operate from Bellville to Kraaifontein, then your vehicle is shot at and your passengers are intimidated," said Mangalisa Nakani, the secretary of Codeta.

Cata officials are unimpressed. "When they were building the interchange at Bellville, all those coming from outside were supposed to drop their passengers off, and those inside would take them on," said Nelson Mbekufhe, Cata's vice secretary. "If they worked according to the rules of the interchange, we would not be fighting now."

But were the taxi wars that simple, peace would have come years ago. Politics, race and crime have so muddied the cartels' rivalries that they are beyond easy resolution.

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South Africa's apartheid government deregulated the combis in 1987, prompting thousands of poor blacks to leap into the business. But as competition soared, apartheid agents fomented violence among drivers, hoping to sow discord that would slow the drive toward liberation. They succeeded; the early violence killed a number of liberation leaders, sharpened political divisions among blacks and destroyed entire black neighborhoods.

After apartheid ended in 1994, the violence acquired a life of its own. Lacking government regulation, taxi owners banded into groups, and the groups mushroomed into cartels, using gangland tactics to expand their turf.

More than 2,000 people died as a result of taxi-related violence during the 1990s, according to official statistics. Unofficially, the toll may be much higher, said Jackie Dugard, a researcher at the Center for Applied Legal Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand and an expert on the taxi wars.

South Africa's new government, she said, was powerless to bring the taxi cartels to heel. "The industry actually requires a lot of coordination," she said. "You need to be able to disperse the right kinds of taxis to the right places, and there are peak and nonpeak hours. Where the state doesn't control it, other bodies are likely to."

The cartels say they are shocked to be accused of a role in the violence.

"Cata is a peaceful association," said Mbekufhe, the group's vice secretary. "It's not involved in violence."

After the August attack, both groups asked the provincial and national governments to end the conflict. The government has proposed a program to issue new licenses, impose new rules and require drivers to scrap their ancient minibuses for new, larger ones.

The idea is to wrest leadership from the cartels. "It's an attempt by the government to reregulate the industry, to almost start it from scratch again," Dugard said.

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