There is a general impression in South Africa that taxi’s are dangerous and should be avoided at all costs. For our international visitors, I don’t mean a yellow taxi cab – like in New York, but this notoriously dangerous vehicular mode of transport:
I have honestly driven past very few motor vehicle collision scenes where a taxi was not involved. Many taxis are old, and held together with a variety of things – from duct tape to string and barbed wire.
Every now and again, the different factions governing this lucrative industry decide to take up arms against one another and have it out – random gunfire and dead passengers, caught in the crossfire are quite common during these periods of turmoil.
So it was with some degree of trepidation that I decided to put aside my own fears, all the panic inducing news reports and preconceptions, and a good deal of sage advice from friends and family, and give this mode of transport a go.
I did have some compelling motivations besides curiosity however.
My car had decided to give up the ghost the day before and what I know about cars is at the level of just about what Ray Comfort knows about Geology (not much to be sure), so the usual carriage was in for repairs.
I had to get from Hillcrest to Durban central (a short trip of about 30 kms) to meet a friend for drinks and a night of clubbing – I wasn’t going to miss that for anything!
I had no other means of arriving at the required destination.
As part of the Buddhist idea of letting go of control, I decided that this was an opportunity to leap into the unknown and trust that I would survive the ensuing adventure.
Fear must be faced to be overcome – I mean, how bad could it be!
Added to this, it was 14h30 on a Friday afternoon, and although the trip was rather short in terms of distance, the traffic would frustrate progress, and I would have to join another couple of million commuters all fighting their way home. I had never used a taxi before, and its not like you can pick up a manual or time schedule like a regular bus service – information about the system is carried in a kind of distributed community knowledge base held in the minds of the regular users of the service. I hoped to find someone to educate me.
When I explained to the gardener Khosi, that I was going to take my first taxi, and asked if he had any advice, he gave me a rather worried look, and insisted I take his cell number just in case! Just in case? Just in case what!!!
He advised that I only ask the drivers for directions and information, avoid the passengers I was told – they may lead you astray.
Adding to my anxiety, I had to dress for the occasion which I was to attend later that evening – the clubbing – so dressed up in my finest, smart shoes and all, clutching my brand name rucksack, I made my way out of the gates of my housing estate, passing the electric fences and barbed gates, bid the gate guard farewell, and walked up the road a short way to the closest unofficial taxi stop. I say unofficial because they are pretty much all unofficial – in South Africa taxis stop on any portion of the road, usually at the beckoning of a potential fare, much to the danger and displeasure of other road users.
The time was 14h50, and I expected the trip to take the better part of 2 or 3 hours. Just driving my own car at this hour would entail at least an hour, and that would be a direct route without having to go to taxi rank stops.
It is quite a sensation – to be out of control, really out of one’s comfort zone, at the mercy of a foreign system with many phantasmic nightmare scenarios riding on the bumper of every hunk of metal with wheels. To be honest, I was scared shitless – but determined to make this trip, let go and just hope for the best. Perhaps more seasoned travellers are inured to such situations, but not having travelled on public transport (especially not in a foreign country) I was quite nervous. Besides feeling very out of place for being rather pale in comparison to the usual passenger load, I was dressed like it was my friends wedding day, and I really did not want to seem like a newbie – how embarrassing to not know the social or structural protocols for this environment.
Luckily, there was one other lady waiting for her taxi ride – I put on the friendliest face and announced that this was my very first taxi trip, hoping like hell this would lead to some mercy on her part – she may even take me under her wing and help me along – always give people the benefit of potentially being rather helpful I say! Primarily I understood that the system was going to depend heavily on a series of specific hand signals – signs of your required destination, quite localised, like linguistic dialects – perhaps she could help me learn quickly.
But there was not enough time, and she seemed rather hurried and less inclined than I had hoped, and a taxi pulled up. Yikes, I had not learnt any of the signals yet, but now it was crunch time, I did not even know if this thing was going to go to Durban, and via which route. The taxi wasn’t too bad, but far below what I would call 100% roadworthy. It looked approximately 8 years old, and the interior was quite worn. Overriding my internal resistance to this sight, I leapt into the taxi, and predictably found a seat near the door – just in case a quick escape was in order. Breathe, just breathe I said internally. A period of nervous smiling seemed to puzzle the other passengers – I mean, we just want to get home, what’s this guys issue?
The taxi driver noticed me, and asked where I wanted to go – Durban I said cautiously – like a guy unsure if he’s on the right flight to Frankfurt. OK, and we were off.
Slowly the other passengers resumed quiet conversations in Zulu. Two large ladies sat in the front, like resting bullfrogs, the seats barely big enough to accommodate their ample figures. I wondered if they were talking about me, but brushed this off as a bit of paranoia. I was sitting next to some young school children. They clutched their school bags, and just looked at me. Their shoes were clean and neat, but also quite worn. I remember having shiny school shoes, but never that worn.
A sudden tap on my shoulder, and a shiny new five rand coin was being shoved in my face – pass along please. I realised that this was lesson two of the protocol – pay the driver. This is done by handing your money over to the fellow passengers in front of you, and trusting that it will be passed on. Coins started to slowly meander their way from the back of the taxi to the passenger next to the driver – this must be the money guy, I thought – and I fumbled for my cash. Damn, all I had was a fifty rand note – probably a days wages for most of the other passengers – and I sheepishly handed this forward. I felt a bit awkward that I had now made myself even more conspicuous by being the only passenger requiring a fistful of change prepared whilst the driver simultaneously performed the task of driving.
My change returned, I returned to the task of calming down. The taxi was stuffy and I wanted to open the window, but feared that an unsuccessful attempt would be made, so I decided against it.
I was not aware that a taxi relatively full of passengers, could be brought to a stop in the space of 1 meter, but it was quite instructive to watch our driver weave through the rush hour traffic and make such efficient use of the small spaces between the other cars. This drivers technique would be a 5 on the scale of “hectic” but I just accepted that this was the standard operating procedure and held onto the hand rail. Out of Hillcrest, we zooted down the freeway, luckily it was rather busy and the driver could only reach the sub terminal velocity of about 110 kph. Next stop Kloof.
Arriving at Kloof, I found myself in the rather unenviable position of being new to this, and having unknowingly positioned myself as door operator. I opened the sliding door and one passenger got out, four more climbed in – now we were full, or so I thought. As the door slid closed a last minute fare decided to look in. “We’re full” I said unassuredly – she looked me in the eye, and without flinching, disregarded that notion – she was in, where there had once been seating room for 4 there was now a shift, like a pack of pachyderms in a packing plant, and now seated were 5. She sat directly in front of me, the doors closed and were were on the road again, heading down a dangerous route called Fields Hill – many a life lost on that one! – to Pinetown.
I decided to ask the 5th sardine, I mean lady in front of me, for some help at this point. I said “excuse me, I am trying to get to Durban and I wondered if you could advise me”. She turned and was most friendly. She rattled off a series of stops – I really was quite lost by the third one, so by the time she got to stop number nine, and mentioned transferring to a bus system under a bridge, I really felt much more nervous. There was no way I was going to remember all that!
And now we were in Pinetown, at a bustling place called the Pinetown Taxi Rank. This is like a central hub where thousands of taxis congregate to pick up fares. My impression was that these were dangerous places, and being so white, so smartly dressed and so very out of place, I was sure to be mugged or worse. Bit of a pickle this! I remarked internally, my fear now being adequately transformed into a defensive humour.
Everyone piled out of the taxi. I did the same, trying to appear like an old hand, confident, not a target. There was not much room to walk between the rows of taxis. I looked around for a sign saying Durban, preparing to wait in the long queues of passengers that I had felt sympathy for driving past in my car every Friday. I am told that some of these people wait up to 3 hours for a taxi home some days. No sign appeared, and I honestly did not have any idea in which direction to walk. Ask the driver I thought. I turned and saw that he was already beckoning to me through the windscreen. I made my way round to his side – “Where you going” he said, looking like he could see how lost I was.
“Durban” I said.
“I’m going that way, hop in” he said. I hopped into the taxi – it was just he and I now.
At this point I should say that, as per all accounts this was a distinctly dangerous situation. I have since been admonished that one should never get into the taxi alone with just the driver. I was stuck for choices however – helpful taxi driver – or seriously confusing taxi rank, I chose life, I chose the helpful guy!
So now, I’m in the taxi, in the front seat where the assistant would be sitting. And we wait in the queue of taxis making a very short turn at the end of a long snaking trail of taxis trying to now get out of the rank. Quite poorly designed that rank – you go in, then you make a U turn, and have to go out the same way – jammed, just constantly.
I introduce myself to the taxi driver, just trying to ease the tension a bit. I offer my hand for a shake – he half offers his, then hesitates. Looks at his hand, and says, Oh, it’s dirty I had to change a flat after an accident”.
“No worries”, I say, and I shake Leonard’s hand. The fact that he’s had a recent accident, in this very taxi just escapes my notice, and I am just pleased to not be alone in the taxi rank.
We make small talk. He explains that he has been a taxi driver for 5 years, his boss is cool, and is trying to move him to driving a removals van, for small local removal. He explains that this is because of his (now apparent) speech problem. He stutters quite badly, and says that this puts him at a disadvantage when it comes to taxi driving – apparently the passengers require that the driver pass the time by engaging in conversation with them on the trip, and because he battles to speak, he rather stays quiet. He is 27 years old, unmarried and without children. We laugh at the shared male joke that women bring trouble! He waves to another driver, and explains that that guy is a good mate. We let him in, and the other driver stares rather curiously at me, then Leonard, then again at me.
We finally leave the rank and Leonard and I continue to chat on the freeway to Durban. I make a generalised remark about NC drivers being bad. Leonard gets marginally impassioned in explaining that he does not care for such statements. Lots of folk, he explains, have this general impression that all taxi drivers are bad drivers, and because he drives well, this generalisation does not hold. Logic aside, he explains this turned to me, eyes off the road, as we fly down the freeway at 130kph, in a taxi with a spare wheel, after a recent accident. I am less than convinced but concede the point recognizing that all generalisations are somewhat shaky logical ground anyway.
We make our way through medium levels of traffic, and enter the taxi rank at Warwick Junction. Now I get quite scared, I know this place and it is genuinely quite dangerous. I witnessed a smash and grab attack there a few years ago, and know it to be a crime hotspot, if there could be such a thing in the crime blanketed South of Africa. Leonard queries me again as to my destination – Suncoast Casino I say (the meeting spot for my friend and I). I am struck at this point by how genuinely concerned he is with me getting to my required destination – a concern I felt in each and every taxi I made use of. This it seems is the core of the appeal of this system – by and large it is cheap, efficient, fast, and effective at moving you from point a to point b. Sure, it is dangerous, but I wonder how dangerous – statistically. In the absence of such statistics, and with 14 million passengers daily, the system works for a majority of the poor and transport hungry.
Leonard explains that he is going to find me a taxi to take me to the next stop – Smith street to Suncoast. We pull over, and he speaks to a local – “Ok, go with this guy, he will find you the right taxi to take you to Suncoast” Leonard puts me at ease. I thank him profusely, pay him the eight rand for the trip, tip him, and jump out of the taxi. As I turn around Leonard drives off, and I look for the next taxi guy – he is no where to be seen. I spin around in a spot of panic – yikes, now what. Then I see him – phew!
An even older taxi pulls up like Schumacher into the pits. OK, these guys will get you to Smith Street, then another guy will get you to Suncoast. The door opens, and I get in. The interior of this one is much more dilapidated and it smells musty. I seat myself near the door again, and survey this new situation reservedly. This taxi has a dedicated drivers assistant. Neither man is friendly, and the sound system works in this taxi. It pounds out a bumping techno remix of Umshini Wami, Umshini Wami. I’m a little nervous of these guys.
I see the driver counting a rather large handful of cash. A few more passengers get on board, and we are off. No handles and the driver drives like his wife is giving birth. This taxi was the fastest thing on four wheels that afternoon, and I would rate it a 9 on the “hectic” scale. At one point, he squeezed us and the vehicle in between two parked buses at about 10 kph – I felt like we had to have been covered in grease for that move. We careened into Smith St. and stopped every 30 meters or so for new passengers. I got moved around a bit and had to swap seats a few times. This trip cost three rand and it was interesting to watch the assistant guy corral passengers for the driver.
The time is 15h50.
The sequence of stops every 30 meters or so is only broken once – the assistant guy sees a couple of Metro cops standing on the side of the road, and with the warning “Polisie, polisie”, the driver skips that stop. I am even more nervous of these guys now.
At the bottom of Smith St. I am told to alight and catch a second taxi to Suncoast. I am bustled out of the taxi and into another newer taxi.
This one also has an assistant guy. He is rather charming, silent type, with a large black tear drop tattooed under one eye. He stares at me whilst we wait for some more passengers to get on. People pile in, some standing whilst we travel down the beach front towards Suncoast. A young guy gets on in his Chef outfit – he sits on the centre console whilst reading a recipe book.
The sound system booms out some Kwaito tunes, and I feel rather pleased with myself at this point, to have braved my fears and acquired the South African taxi experience, not once, but in 4 separate taxi adventures. I am relaxed and relieved now, near the end of the journey. I sway slowly to the Kwaito, and when I look up, I see the assistant guy smiling ever so slightly at me. Perhaps that tear drop is not so menacing after all. I catch myself realising that we are so quick to judge people by their appearance. I make an internal promise to try to be more trusting and open to what people are like underneath their outward appearance. I pay another three rand for that trip – now I am an old hand at this, and have the exact change ready – I pass it forward without another thought, trusting the system.
We pull into the drop off zone at Suncoast Casino – and the taxi drops us all at the very door of the venue – I cannot park this close when I come in my own vehicle. The time is 16h04, and honestly I am quite impressed at how efficiently I have travelled here, and for less than the petrol cost of one way in my own car.
I don’t know if I would do it again in a hurry. It was quite stressful and the danger of collisions in these vehicles is patently real. But I was encouraged by how helpful and user friendly the environment was. Not even half of our fears are reasonable in this life, and I am encouraged to push the boundaries of my comfort zone with this experience. Perhaps it is a requirement of living in South Africa, part of our complicated birthright, like living in Durban and having a Bunny. Give it a try!