Life in a taxi

 Picking up on the last entry about Dan’s and my welcome back to South African taxi life, here’s a bit more on this peculiar (to westerners) mode of transport that’s a necessary fact of life for so many South Africans, as seen through my sociologist lens…

If you’ve never been to a third world country, the minibus taxi might be unimaginable to you. Functionally, it sits somewhere between a bus and a car. In fact, it sometimes is a car: a stationwagon or bakkie (in ‘American’, a small pickup) packed to capacity with people. In some parts of the world people even hang off of the back or sit on top, if they can or are forced to by circumstance.

In South Africa, a minibus that technically should (and comfortably can) sit 10 people will often have a sticker on its inside saying something like,

This taxi takes:

Sitting         14

Standing     0

Passengers.


Thank goodness that the mass-producers of the ‘taxi-capacity’ stickers had the good sense to conclude that there is no room for standing passengers after an extra 4 people have been squeezed in. But, that’s not to say that their guidance is followed. For instance, Cape Town taxis have a unique (within South Africa’s borders, at least) phenomenon of the taxi conductor, called a ‘gadjie’. He collects the money for the driver, opens and closes the door for passengers, runs around outside competing with other gadjies for customers at the prime locations where the taxi stops for a time (sometimes a long time), and calls out to solicit passengers all the way in-between.

(As happens all-too-often, a pleasant stroll down Main Road is interrupted by the shrill hoot of a speeding taxi and the yell of its dutiful gadjie as he hangs half out the window seeking customers: ‘Mowbray Kaap!’, as recorded by the rockin’ Cape Town band Freshlyground.)

From its phonetics, my guess is that ‘gadjie’ is derived from the English, ‘guard’, combined with the Afrikaans diminutive, ‘tjie’, to produce ‘little guard’ or ‘guard’ with an affectionate spin on it. (Language is an interesting subtext in the taxi culture of Cape Town. A friend was noting recently that, while she was in a taxi one morning, she heard a taxi driver and gadjie exchanging words and suddenly realised that they used three languages – English, Afrikaans, and Xhosa – all in one sentence. As a result, the rest of the people in the taxi, most of whom would speak at least one of those languages, could make out what was being discussed more or less.)

When the taxi is full, the gadjie stands by the door to the main compartment, trying to keep his balance, armpit over the head of the person sitting nearest the door who will be desperately holding her breath on a hot, sweaty day, just praying that she arrives at her destination promptly. As you can imagine, the taxi does not present the most fragrant travel option in general, especially not at the end of a long, hot workday when several passengers might be returning from manual labour. To compound the matter, sometimes the windows don’t open or the taxi is travelling on a gravel (dirt) road and you have to choose between inhaling dust and body odour.

The relatively fortunate people are those who sit next to the driver: this place is coveted because it has its own door and is wholly visible to the traffic police so only two people can sit there, as intended by the vehicle’s manufacturers. There are still drawbacks: namely, the person in the centre has to hold on tight when the taxi turns a corner as she has no supports and no seat belt. She may also have the driver hitting up against her leg when shifting gears. And, in the absence of a gadjie, she collects the taxi fare and issues change – paying customer turned service-provider and enforcer against her will.

Defects aside, taxis constitute a very efficient and cost effective mode of transportation, depended upon by the poor especially. Unlike buses, taxis do not travel according to a set schedule and they stop, on request, at any point on their routes agreed by the taxi associations. They are also abundant in urban areas. All of this makes them a more adaptable way to travel. Many rural people bemoan their scarcity in deep rural areas where people consequently have to hitchhike or walk a long way. By taxi, people travel vast distances relatively cheaply – albeit sitting really cosy, with their luggage tied to the roof and set on their laps, as well as children in arms, for as long as 16 hours (with stops). Taxi drivers are well known for speed – though also not the most careful or considerate of drivers – so often what could have been a 12-hour trip turns into an 8-hour journey accompanied by the fear of not making it at all. Thankfully, we live in a culture where people are not shy about getting ‘all up in each other’s business’ and long hours in tight quarters are often passed in conversation (or involuntary eaves-dropping). People sometimes emerge as friends.

I spent a lot of time in taxis growing up, and like most South Africans, I have a love-hate relationship with them and, I must admit, that often means I love to hate (on) them :-)

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