Yesterday I found myself walking to and from walk almost accidentally: a term which here means I did not plan to.
Incident Number One: I left my brother’s high-rise flat in the economic center of the Johannesburg City Center, otherwise known as CBD at 06:30 in the morning to catch a minibus taxi about four kilometers down the road on Bree street also known as the Bree Taxi Rank. I arrived and I wondered if there was a taxi strike that we did not know about, there were long queues of people waiting, orderly, patiently, habitually. There were hardly any taxi’s inside the two tier taxi rank, just the hum of collective conversations wafting in the air as people waited. The best way to find out which taxi to take is to ask “marshalls or taxi drivers” who without taxi’s near them are almost unidentifiable (I know what you are thinking, ask the people standing in line, yes I tried that , but lo and behold, they just often say they don’t know, which one day almost got me into a fight with an innocent passenger who gave me the I don’t know answer and I asked them – you are sitting in a taxi and you don’t know where it’s going?!) so best option is the marshal right?
Sawubona baba, I greeted the man standing next to the only taxi’s I could see inside the rank – in my best isiZulu. Bengicela amataxi aya e Aucklandpark. I am looking for taxi’s to Auckland Park. He is holding an exercise book, on which he’s keeping some form of record. He looks official enough. ” Ay Angazi” he replies dismissively ( he doesn’t know he says). I am truly trying to improve my beside manner here. I look at him incredulously and then brave a ” usho(sure) baba ukuthi awazi ukuthi akuphi?” He looks at me and I see fire in his eyes. ” Manje ufuna mina ngenzeni?” What do you want me to do he asks me. Oh well nothing, I say in my mind. And head in the general direction of where taxi’s to Auckland park could be – cos even though I am in the correct section of the taxi rank where taxi’s to AucklandPark generally are, they don’t always”rank” (pick up passengers) from the same aisle throughout the day. Eventually one of the taxi owner/workers asks me where I’m going and points me to the right queue to stand in. So we wait. And our line is not moving, other people’s taxi’s are coming speedily and the clock is ticking. After half an hour, I begin to feel my temperature rising (I thought it would be quicker to get a taxi from here, why is it taking so long etc etc)
After 45 minutes two taxis do come, but I’m far down the line to make it into either one but this also means I’m number 6 in line for the next one so that’s encouraging. Minibus taxis typically carry 16 passengers, so I’m in.
I decided to keep the faith and hold out for a while longer, while looking at what’s new on fashion street. On another line opposite to where I’m standing. A woman is clutching her shoulders, trying to keep warm. She’s wearing a hot-chocolate coloured v-neck strap dress, its nice. Most women are wear sandals, and pumps, those ballerina-dancer- looking shoes, I am also sporting a pair. Some older women are wearing those single piece dresses made of that fabric that never wrinkles – what is it again? They remind me of my grandmother’s dresses. I still have them somewhere packed in a suitcase. Some things never change. As we are waiting, a young woman who lookes lik a fresh University student, probably studying art at Wits or Political Science walks past the is ever-growing line of people going to Auckland park and stands right at the front top end of the queue! I tell myself to calm down you know it’s just one person. Then a few minutes later three more women come and form a new queue just in front us. I was about to voice my displeasure when the older woman standing in front of me – sensing my agitation said ” Amacardi” calmly. Cards? I repeated after her questioningly. “Yebo”They have cards which allow them to cut the queue and just go in front. Oh I say and how do you get these cards I ask. She replies dejectedly ” Just go and speak to those taxi guys and they’ll arrange one for you” I was not sure if it was because of how she said it or my earlier conversation with that marshall kinda a guy but I just didn’t feel like finding out more information. I decide to bite the bullet and wait; maybe a taxi will come before there are 16 more people ahead of me. I left the flat at 6:30, It’s now 7:30 and I’m still waiting.
By the time I decided to walk to Auckland part where the offices are – there were 14 people ahead of me – with these magic cards – and no sign of a mini-bus taxi coming anytime soon, not even a vroooom of the wheels. I should have stayed to see if they actually had those cards and how much they cost etc, but I wanted to get to work early so I walked over Mandela Bridge into Braamfontein past Samro, and into Simmonds street opposite Wits University where you can (sometimes) catch taxis going in the Aucklandpark /Cresta/Bree/Westdene general direction. But I figured there wouldn’t be taxis this time and I was right. I arrived at work just after 8:30 in time for the meeting.
Incident Number two : Done with work and am now going home. Oh but I have something to pick up in town, so I do that and catch a taxi to Cresta where I currently live from Bree. This time I find the taxi full, in fact I’m make up the 16th passenger, we move immediately after I shut the door. But as soon as we move out the traffic clutter of Bree and the money has been collected – by the way I think every child should be made to count taxi fare just for their parents to be sure they know how to count – and I see just how fast we’re going. I think I am about to spray people in front of me with my lunch of greasy chips and bread, but then I always think that and it never happens. Then I notice that everyone in the taxi is holding on to something too. I tell myself to breathe to remain calm, everyone knows that taxis speed and drive recklessly so what’s new about that? Just hold on like everyone else and don’t over-react, become emotional or paranoid. Okay what would be the rational, logical thing to do in this situation? So I decided that I can’t ignore the fact that my insides are churning at the speed and that clearly I cannot contain my anxiety so as we came flying down the bridge from empire into Berry Hertzorg I say to the driver ( who is sporting nice thick black locks) ” Baba I’m sorry, we are all holding on to something in this taxi, perhaps you could reduce the speed just a little” I say my voice quivering over my solitary nerve. What he asks, he didn’t hear me, clearly. ” Bengithi, buti sonke sibambelele, bengicela nje uma ungathi nje kancane wehlise ispeed” Oh It’s because I’m working that’s why I have to speed you want to get home soon angithi?” I had no option but to follow through with the line of conversation I had started. “okay, bengicela ukwehla” You want to get off? He asks repeating my request. Yes I said. He stopped and I got out of the taxi feeling stupid, and with no word of support from all the other passenger still holding on to their seats. I feel annoyed and think look at the time its 5;30 and the sun is about to set. I got out of the taxi in awkward area with no other taxis to take me anywhere, even if there were taxis they were all full. By the time I get to the other side of Emmarentia on Beyer’s Naudee drive it would be very dark, and though it’s a well run taxi route the taxis going past are almost always full. I have to be brave and trust that by choosing to value the life I have been given I don’t put myself at even greater risk of it all been taken away by some unfortunate encounter in the dark isolated streets of Emmarentia Johannesburg. What actual choices did I have. In the first instance I had to risk being for late for work and waited for a taxi to come, and maybe even find out about the card – you know how much it is etc, so I don’t just hate on people for no reason, or in teh second instance I just could have held on like the rest of the other passengers and gotten home without further risking my life by walking the streets of Johannesburg at night. Because if something were to happen to me well I will surely deserve it because everybody knows that you don’t walk the streets of Johannesburg at night on your own especially if you are woman who might look gay! or not – either way everybody knows not to do it like a friend once said while being interviewed about an incident in which a group of us were robbed at gun point at Zoolake a few years ago, “it was our fault, it was getting dark and we shouldn’t have been there at that time”. There are no winners in this game called life – it is just a gamble. But I decided to be in control of something. I and could control the taxi I was in, and the speed at which I wanted travel. I can control that by walking.
But this as a friend said, is something that happens every other day to about 14 million South Africans and counting who use minibus taxi’s as their primary mode of transport to work and everywhere else actually.
Many (I) almost breathed a sigh of relief at the introduction of the Bus Rapid Transport system or BRT, which it was hoped would offer poor taxi passengers an alternative to mini-bus taxi’s and sometimes on time Putco and Metrobuses to get from point A to B. But taxi owners and or associations who run their business like the Italian Mafia were not pleased. So they opposed the idea. According to their arguments at the time BRT would take over established (their) established and lucrative taxi routes, they will lose business, not only that but BRT was in fact unfair r competition because BRT would offer passengers cheaper prices, meaning they would invariably choose the safe and cheaper BRT options as opposed to their slow/fast /rickey taxis. This was totally unacceptable. The BRT systems was yet another way government was “trying” to up-grade the ailing public transport in the city ( ahead of the 2010 world cup too). The BRT system was preceded by the controversial Taxi Recapitalization system in which government wanted taxi owners/associations to purchase/upgrade their old minibus taxi’s – the high8s something toyota’s – zolabud- taxis to Siyaya, Quantum taxi’s which are much safer and presumably more road-worthy. I’ve been in one of the Quantum mini-bus taxis; the difference is big and really good. But the Taxi Recapitalization program was abandoned too, and as a result not all taxis are as comfortable as the Quantaum upgrades. Taxi bosses (some) also did not like that idea very much either. Now no-one even talks about BRT now, let alone the taxi recapitalization system. Former Transport Minister Sbu Ndebele was at the helm of the taxi recap back then and ushered in the BRT, which although it is very nice to use – if it goes the route you want, is almost always empty and the buses only seem to work in certain streets in the Johannesburg CBD and or Soweto – Thokoza to be precise. So even though we all endured years of traffic jams as they were making space for the new BRT system, it is only benefiting a very small amount of people in truth. Taxi’s still rule the streets, and well Metro/Putco buses, no-one really knows when and how they run. It is word of mouth if those passengers have enough energy or knowledge of where they are going. The Gautrain is for the economically privileged who may ahve a need to go to the airport every now and then. But for the rest of the population, it’s mini-bus taxis, which are too slow or too fast, Metrorail trains with outdated signals and often-sometimes crash into each other. For those who can still afford a car, and the petrol which increases every other week, it’s traffic jams and future e-tolls, road or street taxes that all drivers in Johannesburg must pay to use the old-new refurbished roads. God only knows how we make it anywhere on time!