I love South Africa! Anyone who knows me even just a little would not contradict it. The country is extremely beautiful, just like its big-hearted people. Within one country you can live several lives in a day. Cape Town is definitely one of the most amazing cities on earth and is a dream for most -- tourists as well as citizens. Except that we always tend to forget the thousands of inhabitants who live a precarious life just outside of the tourist paths, with a misery that is unbearable to listen to. I lived in South Africa during Mandela's era and have been working and visiting Africa for 13 years now. I want to scream every time I encounter a situation I know can be fixed by government and international institutions if only funds could be managed with stronger political willingness and effectiveness.
"Good day, Sir," called the taxi driver. I was staying at a beautiful Waterfront-based hotel and on my way to the convention center where I was attending a telecom exhibition. "It seems to be a huge event, sir! We have been busy this morning and I am already tired," said Mpondo, my driver. "Tired?" I thought. It's only 9:30 a.m. in the morning... "Yes, sir. I was at the Court of Justice yesterday" he carried on. "I was judged for a traffic fine." I smiled, saying that we all face these no matter where you live. He told me:
Policemen fined me 700 South African Rands (ZAR) (about $80) for obstruction of the street. I was parked as close as I could from a street food stall in the neighboring Nyanga township -- where he took me on my way back to the airport -- so that I could talk to those ladies and eat something in my car. You see, I am disabled and cannot get out of my car easily. I was just waiting for some people to get my wheelchair out of the trunk while two zealous cops did not listen to my explanations and fined me on the spot. I spent the day at the Court yesterday. They cancelled the fine without showing empathy or a word of excuse while both cops kept their heads down.
"Did they compensate you for the day of work you missed?" I asked candidly. Straight away I felt ashamed. The answer was obvious.
When you are poor, everything works against you.
Mpondo has been driving the streets of Cape Town for nine years. Needless to say, he knows the beautiful city by heart and can drive with his eyes closed pretty much anywhere. On an early morning in 2009, as he was waiting for the taxi controller to dispatch him, Mpondo was hijacked by two youngsters who shot a bullet from his shoulder through to his chest. He was sent urgently to Groote Schuur governmental hospital where he learned that he had lost the use of both his legs.
When you are poor, you'd better not encounter such a situation, as you are so vulnerable to the system and the community around you. Mpondo's life obviously changed: He had to learn to live with his disability. He also had to face the fact that people looked at him differently. He could also no longer drive his taxi. How would life be possible when you are the only bread-winner of a family with two young kids and receiving the bare minimum governmental grant for being disabled?
A new life at a high cost.
Mpondo quickly made his calculations. He could not afford his family's needs with just the grant. Besides, whenever he wanted to be mobile, the mini-buses were charged him the equivalent of four people to pay for the hire! He had to lie down on the seats while the wheelchair took most of the trunk space. Finally, he could not bear it anymore. He had to continue driving -- but how?
With the help of neighbors and friends, Mpondo adapted his taxi to his disability. A steel lever helps him to accelerate and brake while another one eases the change of gears. Even though such car equipment providers existed in South Africa, they were far beyond his means. Once the car was fixed, he next had to deal with the administration not providing him with a taxi license given that he was no longer supposed to drive a taxi. Another humiliation, not to mention the fact that he also had to find the right medical equipment to help him during the long hours of work and treatment to follow -- all of this at his own cost.
I made sure not to ask another one of these questions where no answer is required, including his home access and living functionality. I managed to learn that he had to move out of his shanty house into a brick home as there was no other choice given his new conditions -- more costs to bear.
A social tax business focused on disabled people.
Despite going through all of these daily burdens that would depress most of us, Mpondo shared with me his dream: to start a social venture where he would coach disabled people on how to drive taxis across the city!
He first plans to buy a new car. As he says "I cannot go to your four-star hotel with such a poor quality car!" I laughed, as I could not believe my ears. The hotel I stayed in was a high standard institution overlooking the Atlantic ocean and the Cape Town Waterfront with a good corporate responsibility approach, as far as I could see during my two-night stay. As Mpondo puts it: "I am so glad that the hotel staff allows me to do my business from here and even helps tourists to get in and out of the car. You know I am supposed to open doors for them -- as it is required of a four-star institution."
At a Cape Town-based car dealership they told Mpondo he could get a brand new car for ZAR3,000 ( about $340) a month.
If I teach another disabled person how to drive my current taxi, I can ask him ZAR200 ($22) a day, that's ZAR4,800 ($550) a month, with this amount I can buy my new car. This would cover the taxi permit cost of ZAR1,000 ($115) a month and pay for my kids uniforms and medicines. Still I would need to work for all other costs.
"Look!" he suddenly said:
When I see someone disabled like me in the street, with no hope whatsoever, I stop by and give him few Rands. You know, Alex, if I could provide a car for each disabled person I know and teach them how to drive a taxi that I would equip with my system, it would allow me to stay home and take care of my health as the doctor told me. I will soon have breathing problems... This way I could help my African brothers while taking care of myself as I cannot drive these long hours every day for much longer.
A "social enterprise" is a new venture model that complements governments and non-profit organizations by addressing both social and environmental issues. Working together, with the help of transport manufacturers, taxi companies, car rental or hospitality corporations, we could easily improve the life of Mpondo while creating jobs for the disabled people of Cape Town. One could make sure he focuses on his health, his children and his business rather than driving with his daily challenges.
We can make a difference and make this a sustainable initiative to empower people with disabilities and enable them to be part of the economic growth in Cape Town and South Africa as a whole. This will improve the lives of a lot of people living with physical disabilities and their families. What could be the value of such a change?
If you seek the answer -- it's priceless.