Rebuilding Foundations

An exploration of international development work in Africa

Still Taking Taxis

I moved to my own place in a new neighbourhood over the weekend.  Consequently, getting to and from work is a whole new adventure!

The trip from my new place to the MHA office takes 15 minutes by car.  This morning I gave myself 1.5 hours to make it by transit.

I walked a couple blocks to the closest busy street and hailed down a taxi bus.  “How do I get to Hillbrow?” I asked.
The taxi driver said, “First you have to go to town.”
“Oh.”  I have no idea what he means by “town.”  The CBD?  “Are you going to town?”

I crawled into the mostly full van and we hurtled along a street I was completely unfamiliar with.  In the middle of an intersection the taxi stopped and a bunch of people got out.  The driver motioned for me to exit (I may not have known where I was, but I definitely knew we weren’t: anywhere near Hillbrow).  He got out too and talked to the second taxi driver.  He told me this new driver would tell me where to get out for Hillbrow.

Again, we were off like a shot.  I started recognizing street names.  Yes!  I had made it to the city!

The second taxi driver told me when to exit and said to talk to another taxi driver across the road to get to Hillbrow.  By now I knew where I was – about 10 blocks from the office – and didn’t feel like crawling over people anymore.  Instead, I walked to work.

I know some people don’t think I should be taking the taxi vans – that it’s only “a matter of time” until something bad happens.  But I think taxi vans have a worse reputation than they deserve.

One reason for this is the relatively recent surge of violence against Johannesburg’s new bus rapid transit system (BRT) – the Rea Vaya.  When the first lines opened a few years ago, there was a significant amount of opposition from the taxi drivers.  They violently protested at the bus stops and against the bus drivers.

On the one hand, the Joburg government wants to create a state-owned transportation system.  But on the other, they don’t have the resources to do it.  And the taxi buses have a lot of power.  If they go on strike, the whole city shuts down.

The people causing the violence, however, are not always the same people driving the taxis.  Most of the vehicles are owned by a company (often a gang, hence the violent tendencies) who hire poorer people to drive them.

View from the back of a taxi as a woman passes back fare change.

All the taxi drivers I’ve had so far have been super helpful and nice.

Here’s a conversation from my commute to work last week:

I’m the only one left in the taxi as we enter Hillbrow besides the driver and his friend.
Driver: “Where are you going?”
Me: “Hillbrow.”
Driver: “Is Pretoria Street ok?”
He wants to turn around as soon as possible so he can pick up people going north out of the city.
Me: Pretoria Street is fine.
It’s a couple blocks before I would normally get out, but no big deal.  The taxi stops for a long time at an intersection.  I look around, trying to orient myself.  Am I supposed to get out?  The driver senses my agitation.
Driver: “Don’t worry.  I’ll tell you where to get off.”
Friend:  “Do you speak Afrikaans?”
Me: “No.”
Driver: “You don’t speak Afrikaans!  Why’d you ask her?”
Friend: “Because it sounds funny!  I wanted to hear to her talk some of it!”
They both dissolve into giggles.  We arrive at Pretoria Street.
Driver: “Here you go!  Do you know where you are and where you’re going?”
Me: “Yes. Thanks!  Have a great day!”

I actually kind of like starting the morning this way.  Especially when the taxi is mostly empty and the driver pumps up his music so loud I can feel the base in my chest!


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