Public taxis in South Africa are one of the cheapest modes of transport on the road – this is beyond doubt. However, what is not beyond doubt is the apparent safety of these vehicles. Joshua decides to investigate the South African taxi stereotypes and is surprised by what he finds.
There is a certain perception held by students and working persons alike, particularly in communities like mine where taxis aren’t used frequently, that the vehicles are dangerous and the people on them (whose apparent sole purpose is to lure you on in order to stab you and steal your backpack) are more so.
To see if there was any legitimacy to these views, I took a taxi from Rondebosch to Cape Town. What I learned may surprise you as much as it surprised me.
1. TRUST IS A RARE COMMODITY
Hand up. Whistle. Doors open. Seated. The first few seconds of the journey was a mad rush as people squeezed past each other to get on and off the taxi. But once the doors were closed and we had joined the flow of traffic, it became fairly calm. The commuters mostly kept to themselves, the conductor who was the only one happy to draw attention to himself as he stuck his head out of the window, calling, “Cape Town!”
I was weary of the ‘criminals’ and ‘escaped convicts’ my community always told me about, so I clung to my backpack tightly and kept an eye on the woman sitting next to me who looked suspicious, though for no rational reason – I started imagining how the baby on her lap was some cover for the threat a hidden agenda posed.
15 minutes later and not one person had tried to take my cellphone, wallet, or bag. No one had stabbed me and no one else had been stabbed. Not even the guy with the Kauai smoothie at the back had done anything remotely ‘stabby.’ There was actually a complete lack of stabbing in general.
After my surprise had waned and my grip on my backpack had relaxed, I had time to observe how the commuters paid for their fare. The conductor would collect various amounts of money from his passengers and they would either stay silent or request a certain amount of change. The conductor would then not ask where they were going, but simply trust that the amount of money they were paying was accurate.
Outside of the taxi, I had little to no trust for the people sitting all around me now. But inside the taxi, trust seemed to be the very system it ran on.
2. NO ONE WILL TAKE YOUR LAPTOP
At the next stop, a young man in a suit bowed through the door, took the first available seat, unzipped his bag and opened a laptop. Horrified, I signalled for him to put it away before having to witness my first mugging, but my gestures went unnoticed and so I watched as… nothing happened.
No one moved, except for the conductor as he slid the door closed. The young man with earphones in, listening to music on his phone, didn’t look up, the old man simply readjusted his glasses, and the guy at the back only motioned to take another sip of his damn Kauai smoothie.
In fact, no one seemed to take any notice of the man or his laptop. I had been led to believe that any valuables to enter a taxi with you would not get off with you. The truth is, not only would this gentleman get off with his laptop, but he would do so with a little more work done too.
3. YOU’RE ONLY AS RICH AS YOUR LAST ACT OF KINDNESS
Panic. It stood out like a Stellenbosch student in Cape Town, and it was all over the man with the laptop’s face. He searched hopelessly in his pockets and bag as the conductor stood impatiently with his hand out.
“I’m R2 short”, he whimpered as he looked up at the conductor.
“So what you going to do now?” the conductor replied, looking constantly for pedestrians needing a lift.
“Well, this is all I have”, he said, closing his laptop and putting out a collection of coins.
The conductor then frustratingly repeated how it wasn’t enough. A sense of desperation began to overwhelm the young man as he put his laptop away with a slightly shaking hand. I began to feel around in my pockets for any loose change but was cut short when a middle-aged man tapped him on the shoulder and handed him a silver R2 coin.
4. PEOPLE ON PUBLIC TAXIS ARE NORMAL
Instead of finding criminals, escaped convicts, stabbers and thieves, like I was falsely promised, I found that people who use these public taxis are the exact contrary to what I have been preached.
All this time I had been so naive, thinking that the entire community that frequently uses taxis is different to my own, and by default practices more violence and crime. But shocker – they raise children, grow old, drink smoothies, listen to music, and use laptops… like anyone else.
To my even greater surprise, if not delight, I also realised that unlike a vast majority of people that travel in expensive cars or on planes, the taxi community has an immense amount of trust, generosity, and kindness to go with its under-appreciated normality. Public taxis are in general safe, and the people in them – good.
And as these thoughts cleared the clouds of misconception from my mind, my journey ended. Not because there were no more lessons to be had, but because we had just passed a Kauai– and I really wanted a smoothie.
We often let stereotypes and misconceptions keep us from having insightful experiences. Prejudice has its origins, but at the end of the day, you need to find out for yourself what someone or something is about. Yes there are many taxi accidents, and there are taxi wars, and yes, theft in taxis may occur, and definitely yes – many taxi drivers ought to revise the use of indicators – but thousands of taxis drive on our roads each day and the few bad ones shouldn’t represent this entire transport mode as a whole.