Special investigating unit will also look into financing of converted goods vehicles
The public protector has teamed up with the special investigating unit (SIU) in an attempt to speed up an ongoing investigation into illegal panel van conversions, which saw thousands of goods vehicles being passed off as people-carrying Toyota Quantum minibus taxis.
Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane’s office has confirmed that the investigation, started by her predecessor, Thuli Madonsela, will get forensic assistance from the SIU.
According to an informed source, the SIU will also help probe deception and fraud in the financing of minibus taxis.
Major financial institutions, including Toyota Financial Services and SA Taxi Finance, as well as banks, financed illegally converted minibuses which were taken off the road later for safety reasons, leaving taxi owners heavily indebted.
Last year, transport officials testified that 2 353 illegally converted minibuses had been identified.
During the public hearings, complainant and whistleblower Hennie de Beer, a former taxi finance manager at Absa, said cutting panels to fit windows weakened the structure, with zero chance of survival in an accident.
The seats are bolted to the weak floorboard instead of the chassis, with seatbelts attached to the seat instead of the body of the vehicle, which resulted in passengers being flung out with their chairs in a crash.
De Beer said he had documented at least 200 accidents in which passengers were flung from the illegally converted minibuses.
Public protector spokeswoman Cleopatra Mosana confirmed the SIU would conduct forensic investigations.
She said the investigation was at an advanced stage, with Mkhwebane still needing to hear testimony from more witnesses, including former deputy transport minister Jeremy Cronin, the NRCS and SABS officials.
“She would then have to prepare Section 7(9) notices to implicated parties, if any, before finalising the report,” Mosana said.
A source close to the public protector’s investigation said the SIU had been enlisted because the public protector’s powers limited her investigations to state affairs and issues of public administration, meaning she could only consider the role of the government in the affair.
Former Pretoria taxi boss Lucas Mogotlane, who testified during public hearings into the illegal conversions last year, said he was anxious for the investigation to conclude.
Mogotlane previously had a fleet of nine taxis accumulated in two years in the 1980s.
The road to destruction for his taxi empire started in 1996, when the government implemented the taxi recapitalisation programme.
Mogotlane and other taxi owners were forced to surrender their paid-up fleet for scrapping.
He received R50 000 for each scrapped vehicle, for a total of R450 000, and immediately set about acquiring minibuses with safety specifications that were in line with the programme.
By 2009, the 66-year-old from Hammanskraal, had seven what he thought were Toyota Quantum Ses’fikile minibuses, financed by various banks, including Nedbank and Wesbank.
Then one of the minibuses was impounded and taken off the system as it was found to be not a passenger vehicle but a van manufactured to carry three people in the front.
At the time, Mogotlane was repaying R56 000 a month to various financial institutions.
He approached banks with the news but was told he should stick to the contract. He said he took all the vehicles to a safe storage and called the banks to collect them.
The banks took back the vehicles but eight years later he still got threats of legal action and payment demands, he said.