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Mid-morning on Saturday, the day after we arrived back in Cape Town, we needed to get from our temporary accommodation to where Puggy (our old, little Toyota) was stored by a dear friend. So, we did the natural thing and took a taxi – not a cab-type taxi, a minibus taxi.

We stood by the side of the road and, when we spotted the first taxi coming along only a minute after we’d arrived at our chosen spot, I used my index finger to point backwards toward the sky (the universal sign to stop a taxi and indicate that you’re going to the city centre). The taxi stopped. It was relatively full so Dan and I squeezed in near the main compartment door and closed it. I prayed that this was not one of those poorly maintained taxis where the door doesn’t stay closed: Dan was nearest the door and I feared being widowed the day before our first anniversary.

The taxi pulled forward 200m and stopped for an elderly white man. He opened the main door, looked in and – seeing no (comfortable) space – closed the door. The driver tried to persuade him to get in but the man shook his head decisively. The taxi pulled away.

300m on stood another white man, probably in his late 30s. He did not open the door but shook his head. (I reflected for a moment on how far South Africa had come that white men were using minibus taxis for transport.) The driver indicated to him that only one person sat in the front compartment and that the white man could take the spot next to him. The seat next to the driver was a makeshift seat made of a block of wood without cushioning – clearly not a ‘proper’ seat. The young white man took a peek and shook his head; he backed away to start looking out for the next taxi to come along.

The driver then – about to lose another customer while, in his mind, the taxi was not full – turned to the young black man sitting in the best spot in the taxi and asked him to relocate to the back row of the taxi to make room for the white man. The young black guy, who was foreign (we could tell because he and the taxi driver had to communicate mostly in sign), jumped out and we opened the main compartment door for him to get in. He made his way to the back seat, which technically has room for only three people but is always required to seat four. Seemingly unperturbed, he joined his three friends there and they continued in conversation in a Central African-sounding language. The young white man got into the front compartment, taking the recently-vacated ‘proper’ seat. Immediately behind him, Dan (who was sitting most uncomfortably) jokingly observed that he should have negotiated a reduction in taxi fare for his one butt-cheek that was not accommodated on the seat.

A further 300m later, the driver stopped for a middle-aged coloured man; we silently wondered where he was going to put him. The young white man who had lobbied so hard for his seat shook his head emphatically. I suppose, having seen how his predecessor had been shunted to the back for his sake, he was horrified at the thought that the same might happen to him and made it clear that he wasn’t having it. The driver indicated – both to him and the coloured man standing outside the door – that he intended for the white man to get out only to let the coloured man take the makeshift seat; the white man could then resume his place. The coloured man showed no objection to the arrangement and slipped in. The taxi now being full to a degree that satisfied the driver, we drove off to our destinations.

What we took away from this striking welcome back home is obvious from the story itself. It was a sobering example of adaptive preferences: the two white men had obviously been socialised into expecting to be accommodated as customers and therefore felt empowered – and surely had the political capital – to refuse poor service or negotiate a better position in a way that their compatriots of previously oppressed races did not. The latter saw little wrong with the compromises they were asked to make. In light of their prior experience, these were small compromises, if compromises at all. These were just life as usual.

Taking it in, Dan says he’s not yet sure how he (the white American guy who’s been cultivating political capital/entitlement all his life) will negotiate these choices in his new home. As for me, I’m happy to take whatever seat is on offer and play the sociologist.

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