Thursday, April 10, 2014

Want a Ride?

In common with many third world countries, South Africa has a huge, hardly regulated and absolutely essential semiformal transport system.  It’s a mass of privately owned minibus vans, who make their way along routes of their choice, often stopping at random to take on fares or drop off passengers.  Other road users – driving private cars – hate them because they hold up traffic and generally their road manners are appalling.  But heaven only knows what the country would do without them.

Here are a few facts.  Roughly 90% of the taxi business consists of these shared minibus taxis; the other 10% are the standard metered taxis.  The fare has more or less the same ratio: it will cost you ten times as much in the latter than the former.  About two thirds of city commuters use the taxis, with the bus system and the trains splitting the rest.  That means that around 10 million workers ride one of these minibuses to or from work each day.  The industry is estimated to employ some two hundred thousand people – about 1.3 people for every taxi on the road.

Since the taxis don’t have formal stops (like a bus), if you want to catch one you need to know the correct hand signal to tell the driver where you want to go.  If he stops, you have a match.  Once you’re on board, you pass the fare forward and change will come back as the passengers do the computation including providing change.  Usually the fare depends on the route rather than the distance traveled.  There’s no time for negotiation.

This picture tells you a lot.  The driver is friendly and cheerful.  His raised finger tells you where he's headed, and the emergency exit is his window!  Don't worry that he'll be in your way.  He'll be out long before you are!
There’s quite a story behind how all this came into being.  The industry started in a small way in the late seventies.  Black people couldn’t get taxi licenses, so it was all very informal.  But it really took off when the apartheid government started deregulating the tightly controlled 'normal' taxi industry.  Suddenly minibus taxis were everywhere, with signs on their back windows proudly proclaiming ‘This Taxi Stops Anywhere Anytime’ and the like.  The government of the day wasn’t too interested.  It had lots of other things on its mind at the time.  The problem with an industry that grows that big with that sort of regulation is that it’s open to all sorts of wild-west type behaviors.  Cartels started to control the industry with mafia-like behaviors which irrupted into turf wars. 

As for those road manners, the model is often that the driver is given a taxi and told that the owner wants a certain amount per day in his pocket.  How the driver achieves that is up to him.  The more he makes, the more he keeps.  Is it any wonder that the taxis travel flat out as full as possible (or even as full as impossible!) and stop wherever, whenever?  Here time really is money, and drivers might carry on long after dangerous exhaustion sets in.   Also routes most popular with commuters are the most lucrative.  Hence the turf wars.  Throw in some mafia-type actions and some tribal rivalry, and you have the makings of pretty violent confrontations, including taxis being raked with machine gun fire and set alight.  The lack of regulation of the vehicles, speeding, and overcrowding also led to some horrendous accidents.  Even today minibus taxis account for 10% of road deaths.

The new government felt that it had to face the industry head on.  Drivers needed to be guaranteed the minimum wage for their work, commuters needed to be guaranteed safe (or at least not actively dangerous) vehicles, and the rule of law should once more apply on the roads.  The immediate reaction of the industry was opposition and intensified hostilities.  But time and effort and quite a lot of good will all round has led to a significant improvement.  Nowadays, the industry is safer and the turf wars are pretty well a thing of the past.  The drivers still go flat out, still stop anywhere, and still break lots of rules.  The new bus system being introduced in Johannesburg (heatedly opposed by the taxi associations, of course) has its own separate bus lanes on the roads.  These have been co-opted by the taxis too.  The new toll highways around the city had to make an exception or face taxi blockades.  So taxis go free.

South African cartoonist Zapiro's comment on the positive reaction of taxi owners to the new 18 passenger or 35 passenger vehicle capacity rules!

Susan Woolf's wonderful representations of the taxi hand signs
The bottom line?  Without the taxis, the economy would grind to a halt.  The ANC government which is so often pilloried for its shortcomings and corruption, deserves a lot of credit for working patiently with the taxi owners and drivers to bring the industry, at least mostly, onto the right side of the law.

Michael - Thursday 


  1. Thanks Michael. I've seen London cab drivers use a few hand signals - well two really, both of them extremely rude!

  2. In Cape Town, the minibus taxis are used not only by Blacks. They are ubiquitous, accommodating, and do a better job than caffeine to start your day.

  3. What a nice piece. I remember riding along Cape Town's Main Road from Observatory to Rondebosch and back. On the way out, the drivers shouted "Wynberg, Wynberg" and on the way in "City, City." For three Rand it was cheapest transport.

  4. What Caro said! I am sure every one of those hand signals is rude in some country.

  5. NYC sounds to have the same taxi situation as South Africa. Sort of. Historically, only yellow cabs were permitted to pick up passengers off the street, but they generally trolled for fares only in Manhattan south of 110th Street (the northernmost boundary of Central Park) leaving the rest of Manhattan and the "outer boroughs" of NYC (Brooklyn, The Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island) to the basically unregulated "gypsy cab" industry. A recent change now has gypsy cabs operating on a regulated basis as "apple green" (really chartreuse) cabs that may pick up passengers on the street, but not below East 96th Street or West 110th Street. In other words, the taxi industry rules on both sides of the Atlantic...not surprising since the cost of a medallion for the right to operate a cab is now in excess of one million dollars.

  6. Thank you for your insight, Michael! It’s a sad reality how taxi owners and drivers are not given much gratitude in some countries. Most people don’t realize how this industry can help the economy by getting our workforce from one place to another faster. I hope your article enlightens many.

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