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My first time in a taxi

by Zahid Jadwat

On a sunny Jo’burg morning last week, an Uber picked me up and I made my way to the Salaamedia offices with trepidation. The day I had been putting off for months had finally arrived – it was time to experience my first (minibus) taxi ride.

As a newbie in the city of gold, it was only appropriate I tried out the city’s transport network in an authentically African style. From the offices in Robertsham, my colleagues then took me to Bree Street Taxi Rank, in the heart of downtown Johannesburg. The nerves as we got there! Would I get mugged? Would I get lost? How does this work?! Worse yet, would I get kidnapped and mutilated?

Those were very real fears for a reasonably privileged individual experiencing an unusual mode of transport for the first time. It sure was unusual for me, but most certainly not for the rest of the 3.7 million South Africans who took a minibus taxi to their various destinations that day. As it turned out, none of those fears actually materialised and I actually learnt for myself that we in Africa do transport our way!

As I walked across the street, from where we had parked, to the usually-bustling taxi rank, I saw vendors sit in the scorching heat as they tried to make an honest living. Other people milled around, in pursuit of their own agendas for the day. The large building known as Bree Street Taxi Rank loomed over them, taxis rushing in and out of the various entrances and exits. That was daunting – to find the right place to go, but thankfully my colleague, a seasoned taxi rider, guided me to entrance C4.

Inside, though cooler, it was rather dark. Graffiti adorned the walls. Taxis lined up against the backdrop of the Johannesburg skyline. I gazed down over the wall to find taxis zooming around. It looked chaotic down there. With the help of a kind marshall inside the building, I found the taxi I was to board to make my way back to the office. I hesitantly opened the sliding door, stepped in and scurried to a window seat.

There, I sat for at least a quarter of an hour before the vehicle made any movement. I was the only one until a gogo hopped on, then another, and another. When filled, my fellow passengers comprised a reasonable mix of age and gender demographics, but I was without a doubt the only non-Black African on the taxi (The reasons for which can be explored later in an essay of their own).


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The taxi rolled forward, taking a turn towards the exit in the labyrinth of Bree Street Taxi Rank. We stopped again, just before the exit, and everybody passed their coins and notes forward until it reached the driver. This, to me, was astonishing for I had expected a conductor of sorts to walk down the aisle and collect our fare. Side note: there were no credit/debit card facilities, only cash. It was even more interesting to see how change was returned to the right person, with all those arms stretching back to hand loose coins over to a recipient’s arm all the way at the back of the taxi.

We waited a little while longer, though I am not sure why. During this time, a few hawkers dangled their products for sale at the taxi door in the hopes they could convince someone to buy their Coke, or lollipops, or crisp, or really whatever else it was that he dangled in a bundle.

At last, we emerged from the poorly-lit building and onto the congested street under the pelting sun. I was experiencing my first taxi ride.

I had expected we’d take the highway, but that didn’t happen. We rolled through backstreets until we reached the robots nearest to the office on Xavier Street. Along the way, we made a few stops, collecting and delivering passengers at each point. Only on the second stop, when a man jumped on, paid his fare and assumed his seat, did it occur to me he just jumped on without any clear sign as to where the taxi was going. Well, at least it appeared to me so but upon enquiry I learnt of the hand gestures that denote the direction of the journey. Fascinating!

I do not know what it was I expected my disembarkment would be like, but it definitely was quicker than I anticipated. One moment I was seated and the next, I was hopping off, greeted once again by the unseasonable heatwave. Traffic raced past, leaving myself and a fellow passenger on an island in the middle of an intersection. From there, I walked over to the offices.

That very journey was something like a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me, but certainly a part of the daily lives of millions of South Africans. This is a country where nearly 70 percent of the population relies on minibus taxis to get to and from work and I can see why they do. It’s cost effective. For the price I could hardly imagine paying an Uber along the same route (R30), I journeyed in relative comfort on a minibus taxi. But that is not to say the transport system in South Africa as a whole is crippled and needs urgent intervention, to make lives so much easier. For now, however, we do it our way. Next experience: any train other than the Gautrain.

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