When does two equal three? Taxi culture, practices can take your breath away, but get you where you need to go

Not much will slow down a rural So. African taxi driver, but a speed bump will, most of the time. I speculate that most drivers don’t own the vehicles they drive – a fleet of taxis is probably owned by a person who is pretty well off – so if a hired driver causes damage to the taxi he probably has to pay for repairs. Hitting a speed bump at high speed could pop a tire, mess up a transaxle, throw the vehicle out of alignment, knock a hole in an oil pan, cause loss of control. Not the damage hitting a 2,000-pound steer would do (which happens occasionally), but still, damage that drivers want to avoid.

There are lots of speed bumps in the rural area south of Estcourt where I live. Some are in places one would expect to find them, where one would want drivers to slow down: near schools and cattle crossings (actually, cattle can cross anywhere, since most are not fenced in, but crossings in some places might be near natural grazing areas); near municipal offices or businesses; near collections of houses where lots of kids live; near a clinic with lots of foot traffic; just before blind rises or blind curves. Other times you find them in the middle of nowhere, where you wouldn’t expect them.

I’ve learned a lot about taxis and taxi culture in the 8+ months I’ve been here, but perhaps the most interesting is something I’ve told before: something that is reported to happen on occasion when taxi drivers see a hitchhiker, whom they view as someone cutting into taxi income. A driver who sees a hitchhiker will call a couple of other drivers on his cell phone, they all meet at where the hitchhiker is, jump out of their taxis, surround the miscreant and force him into a taxi and take him back to the nearest taxi stand, or “rank,” and order him to take a taxi instead of hitchhiking. In America, we would call this kidnap or unlawful imprisonment, major felonies that could net you 10 to 20 years in the slammer. But in South Africa? . . . Free enterprise! I find this hard to believe, but, they told us this in official PC training, so it must be true.

I’ve yet to witness it, thankfully. I never hitchhike because it’s potentially dangerous, and there’s a PC policy against it, but occasionally I do accept a ride from a village neighbor or someone else I know who stops.

A few years ago I participated in the “citizens’ police academy” in my home town of Eugene, Oregon. It was a 10-week opportunity for ordinary citizens -– once a week for 3 hours of lecture and a couple of Saturday field trips to places like the crime lab and the firing range — to learn what cops really do, and why. When the personnel director spoke to us one night she said that the ability to multi-task is one of the most important traits the city looks for in would-be officers. Many people are not good multi-taskers.

But you should see a So. African taxi driver: he can drive at 60 miles an hour on curvy mountain roads with no shoulders, accept money and make change, tinker with the radio or stereo – after thumbing through his collection of CDs — honk his horn, shift gears, talk to the guy next to him, wave at friends he passes, watch for cattle, goats, chickens and kids – swerving around them if necessary – pass other vehicles, dodge potholes, listen for passengers yelling about where they want out, flirt with the attractive woman behind him, watch the rearview mirror (if he has one), tell a drunk to behave, watch the roadside for people flagging him down, and work the dials of the wipers, heater, flashers and anything else with a switch. Sometimes he even converses, in English, with the local Peace Corps volunteer. And if his cell phone rings? He always answers it. If you’re in his taxi, you better hope he’s a good multi-tasker and that it’s your lucky day! He’d probably make a good Eugene police officer.

Sometimes the driver gets help from the person in the front passenger seat next to him when it comes to collecting money and making change. It’s customary for that person to assist the driver so he has one less thing to worry about. On a recent trip to town, it worked like this: I was in the back row on the right side – the right, rear corner of the taxi. I had exact change for the 12-rand ride, a 10-rand note and a 2-rand coin. I passed that to the guy on my left, who also had exact change. He passed both of our fares to the woman to his left, who also had exact change, and she passed all of it to the woman to her left, who had a 50-rand note.

The total now for the four of us was 48 rand. She kept all the money from the first three of us and passed the 50 forward, telling the person, “four,” meaning money for four passengers. That woman also had exact change, so she gave her 2-rand coin to the woman in my row, leaving 60 rand remaining, which she passed to the next woman, while saying, “five.” The money goes forward, the driver gets 60 rand, exact change for five passengers, and doesn’t have to make any change. This is a simplified example, since at that point there were still 10 people, further forward, who hadn’t paid. Some of those may also have had bigger bills that also needed changing, hopefully before the wad of bills and change got to the driver, or his assistant. I’ve been that nervous person in the front passenger seat a couple of times. It’s a big responsibility, since you’re responsible for making sure no one gets ripped off – driver or any passenger – that all get what’s coming to them.

Taxis, most are minibuses — similar to those old VW minibuses hippies used to drive in the ‘60s — but bigger. Many are Toyota products. The top-of-the-line model is the Quantum (it’s also what PC uses). All are “certified” for anywhere from 13 to 16 passengers, depending on the model, “seated,” it says on the decal stuck to the wall. In the local villages like the one where I live, drivers load up with as many as they possibly can, since many of those are local, five-rand trips to schools, the clinic or, in my case, the organization where I volunteer. That means they will disembark within about five kilometres. There are periodic traffic stops on the main roads by local municipal or provincial traffic officers who enforce the rules about taxi operation – passenger capacity, ensuring that equipment like lights and turn signals work, that the licensing sticker in the window is valid and current, etc. They can and do write citations for violations. The driver’s goal is to off-load as many of those passengers as necessary to reach his certification number before he comes to a traffic stop beyond the village, where too many would get him into trouble. Seatbelts are usually disabled, except for the front passenger and driver seats.

He might even poll passengers: “Whose getting out at the clinic?” . . . . “How about the high school?” I often count the number of passengers in the taxi to pass the time. The record so far is 27 – the number of people, including many standing, occupying the vehicle. Many of those were mothers with toddlers or babies who would be getting off at the clinic before the taxi left the villages and hit the open road for Estcourt. More got off at the high school. By the time he got to my stop, he was down to the legal limit of 15 when I got out and gave him the required 5 rand. Most days it’s 18-20 people before he starts dumping the locals.

Speaking of decals on taxi windows, all the taxis I’ve seen in my southern KwaZulu-Natal area have one that says “Nooduitgang,” which is “Emergency Exit” in Afrikaans. I find this annoying since 99.99% of taxi passengers in my rural area are Zulu or other black Africans, not Afrikaner. I suppose, though, that this has more to do with the cities where taxis are manufactured or sold than it does with any conscious plan to confuse passengers. No one but me seems to care!
And finally, here’s a riddle: When does two equal three? The answer is, when one taxi on a two-lane road wants to pass another vehicle and needs the assistance of an on-coming taxi, which means that three vehicles need, for a few seconds, to occupy the same two lanes, at the same time, side by side, while all are going about 80 KM per hour. This calls for some skilled and astute choreography, starting with the taxi driver who wants to pass communicating his desire, telepathically, I gather, to the other drivers. At that point, the oncoming taxi moves to his left, straddling the edge of the payment where it meets the narrow gravel shoulder, while, at the same time, the car being passed straddles the center line, and the driver who initiated the pass moves to his left and straddles the pavement on his side where it meets the narrow gravel shoulder. For about three to four seconds the vehicles are side by side, mere inches away from one another, until the pass is complete, whereupon all return to their lanes, life goes on and breathing resumes!

The news here is full of stories about taxi crashes in which people die. Countrywide, I would guess there are several crashes a week, many but not all of them fatal. On the other hand, taxi is the primary form of transportation in rural areas, where most people can’t afford to own cars. I once heard that there are 30,000 taxis in Durban alone. Imagine how many there are throughout KZN; in the entire country. So, statistically, even if you hold your breath and fear for your life every time you get into a taxi, you aren’t likely to die on any particular trip.

And me? I was once in a bus that crashed and rolled, at night, in the mountains of Mexico. I had minor injuries, but survived. My theory is that the powers that be assign no more than one Third World, public transport crash per person, per lifetime. And I’ve already had mine! . . . . There’s much more I could say about taxis, but I’m out of room. Guess you’ll have to read the book in a couple of years!

UPDATE: Two more members of SA25 have gone home, making it 10 of the original 36 that are no longer in So. Africa. This leaves my group with 26, an attrition rate of about 27% if my math is correct. I suspect this is higher than usual. It would be interesting to know what PC’s analysis makes of this trend.

FINAL NOTE: Peace Corps core expectation #6: “Engage with host country partners in a spirit of cooperation, mutual learning, and respect.”

About GaryC

I'm a retired mental health worker, a returned Peace Corps volunteer (South Africa, 2012-2013), and a writer. I live in Eugene, Oregon with the world's best dog, Carly. My card describes me also as "Jack-of-few-Trades, Master of Some", non-profit supporter, friend, grandpa and world traveler.
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4 Responses to When does two equal three? Taxi culture, practices can take your breath away, but get you where you need to go

  1. Joy Gallagher says:

    Gary – Yes it would be interesting to know what PC’s analysis makes the fact that your group is down 10 people from your original 26. I know, as someone who returned to the PC as a PC Response Volunteer in SA, unfortunately, I was ill prepared by PCSA for my service. PCSA seems to have the idea that PCRVs need only 3 days of in-service training before they are sent out to their sites. I’d been a volunteer in Kenya 77-79, so not only had there been many years since my PC service, I was in SA, an entirely different situation that Kenya. I feel confident that, with additional support and training I would have been able to complete my service. Interesting, yes, very interesting…

  2. jeanne-marie says:

    Hi Gary, Well when I got to S. Africa I learned that vehicular fatalities are the leading cause of death there, or maybe that in the world, the highest fatality rate was vehicular… I’m not sure. All I know is that as a blind person, being a passenger in one of those “taxis” (I call them vans) was really hard for me and my body took several hits whenever the brakes got slammed for many reasons. What a trip to be reminded. I guess I am glad I didn’t get as much description as I often do with such an experience. We didn’t have more than the legal limit, though, since we would have been stopped, I’m sure! I’m glad I checked this… I’ve missed hearing from you. Best, j-m.

    • GaryC says:

      Jeanne-Marie — Yes, nice to hear from you, also. There are still many things I didn’t tell about taxi culture because I didn’t want the blog post to run too long. May have to do another on the same subject! Take care.

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