One On One

Q & A – Zweli Mkhize

With COVID-19 reaching its peak, the government has called on citizens to be more careful and take precautionary measures in keeping safe. However, the government’s decision that taxis will be allowed to operate at full capacity for short trips has been heavily criticised and questioned. The Free State Weekly’s Thapelo Molebatsi quizzed health minister Zweli Mkhize on whether this was a submission by the government from the pressure imposed by the taxi industry and whether this doesn’t place commuters at risk of contracting the deadly virus.

The President’s announcement on Sunday that taxis can operate on full capacity on short trips and 70% on long-distance routes drew criticism from health experts and commuters themselves. What is your take on the matter?

We must make clear that there was extensive consultation that took place before reaching that decision. President Cyril Ramaphosa didn’t wake on the day and decided that taxis will be fully operational without consultation; various health issues were considered before the decision was taken and we stand 100% behind it.

One of the issues that came to the fore following the announcement was that the government had buckled under pressure from the taxi industry. Could this be the case seeing that Santaco had previously threatened to bring the country to a standstill after a fallout with transport minister Fikile Mbalula?

We’ve indicated above that the decision for 100% capacity for local trips was reached based on consultation and proper consideration of health issues. The decision was not reached based on threats made or anything of a sort as suggested.

But how is it that the decision comes immediately after Santaco vowed to bring the country to a standstill following their fallout with the minister of transport, Fikile Mbalulu, and went on to load full capacity illegally?

We had a thorough discussion with the department of transport to look at what the issues tabled by the taxi industry were and try and come up with solutions that are in line with our COVID-19 regulations. Minister Fikile Mbalula raised comments that had been brought up by the taxi industry that they would insist on 100% load levels.

We then met with the taxi industry and once we sat down, the matter got off the table. They were prepared to understand what we were raised as real concerns. And when they understood it, then we were able to try and approach the matter from the point of objective information that we had available. The narrative perpetuated by the media that this was a question of capitulating is false.

So what informed the previous decision imposed by the government that taxis should operate at 70% capacity, only for it to be reversed now?

Before the decision, the government called leaders in both the SA National Taxi Council and the National Taxi Alliance and explained issues related to decisions taken by the government to have taxis operating at 70% capacity. This involved taking them through the presentation led by Covid-19 ministerial advisory committee chairperson, Prof Salim Abdool Karim, to show them where the problems and dangers of 100% capacity were at the time, hence the matter never resurfaced once that engagement.

With the country reaching its peak, do you think this decision, despite having looked at all necessary measures, is the right one? Doesn’t it put commuters at risk of contracting the virus?

We have looked at the sustainability of the taxi industry. We have reached out to look at mitigating steps. Commuters going into a taxi must wear a mask, the issue of hand sanitiser and thirdly that windows need to be open.

You would agree that the opening of taxi windows during travel has been ridiculed. Is there scientific proof that the opening of the window would minimise the risk for commuters?

There is a degree in which the windows need to be opened to create a flow and ventilation in the taxi that will allow the droplets to move out, if there is any.

Where is this logic derived from?

There is a study that was done in the flow of air, by Matose & Munyaradzi. They determined that you just needed to open a certain number of windows on either side. We have suggested putting in stoppers on the windows so the commuters aren’t uncomfortable with all windows opened fully. The windows only need to be opened in such a way, as to create a flow of air. We feel fairly comfortable due to these studies, as there have also been studies on the value of ventilation for TB in taxis.

What is your take on the fact this decision places millions of South Africans using public transport at risk, especially when the government for the past months has advocated for social distancing?

As previously stipulated, ideally people should not be close to one another in a taxi. But we saw the need for mitigating steps, hence for long-distance, the 70% capacity.When it is 100% there are specific guidelines to follow. To ensure that lives are protected at all times, we stipulated that drivers and conductors should complete a daily symptom check before being allowed to go into a taxi. We need to make sure drivers and conductors are free of symptoms. They must at all times wear masks. More importantly, we indicated that no person should be allowed into a taxi without wearing a mask. These are the necessary precautionary measures we’ve put forward to ensure that our people are safe while using this mode of transportation.

Even before the announcement, we’ve had both commuters and drivers getting into their vehicles without wearing masks and not having sanitiser. How will the government ensure that this is adhered to, especially on the driver’s side?

Public transport drivers and operators allowing commuters into their vehicles without a face mask can be prosecuted and jailed for up to six months, be fined, or both. The new lockdown regulations were gazetted and published shortly after President Cyril Ramaphosa addressed the nation on Sunday evening about the coronavirus pandemic. We clearly state that a driver, owner or operator of public transport may not allow any member of the public not wearing a cloth face mask, homemade item, or another appropriate item that covers the nose and mouth, to board or be conveyed in public transport owned or operated by him or her.