Travelling by minibus taxi in SA

Minibus taxis are by far the most common
form of public transport in South Africa.
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South African English

Nosimilo Ndlovu

Catching a minibus taxi is one of the cheapest ways of getting around in South Africa – and a great way to get to know the country and its people.

The first African Fifa World Cup is due to kick off in June 2010 and football fans from around the world are gearing up to head here.

The government and 2010 local organising committee have been working to develop a world-class transport system (PDF, 91 KB) that will allow visitors to follow their teams from city to city.

Fans will have a number of transport options. The first is the recently launched Rea Vaya bus rapid transit system, which will run in four of the nine host cities: Johannesburg, Cape Town, Pretoria/Tshwane and Port Elizabeth. These state-of-the-art buses will be available every three minutes in peak times and every 10 minutes in off-peak periods, from 5am until midnight.

Another option is the Gautrain – a mass rapid transit railway system that will eventually run between Johannesburg, Pretoria and OR Tambo International Airport. In 2010, only the route between Johannesburg and the airport will be operational.

There’s also the park-and-ride system for visitors with vehicles. Areas will be set up where people can park their cars and jump into a bus or minibus taxi, which will take them to and from the stadium.

The adventure begins

But for a truly African experience, and for those on a tight budget, minibus taxis – or just taxis, as they are known in South Africa – would be the first choice. Not only will they get you around town quickly (too quickly for some), they’ll bring you up close to the country’s vibrant mix of cultures and people.

A Johannesburg taxi driver’s clientele will range from a hot-shot businesswoman working in Sandton, the commercial hub of the city, to an old sangoma (traditional healer) from Soweto, South Africa’s largest township, in the south.

You hop in, and the adventure begins. On the one side there may be young women sharing the latest celebrity gossip, and on the other an old man complaining about moral degeneration. While all this is going on, the music system will be pumping out the latest kwaito or hip hop beats, keeping all the heads bobbing. Those who travel the same route quickly get to know each other well, and one commuter will be able to tell you exactly what’s going on in another’s life.

Having grown up in a township, I’ve been taking taxis all my life to get anywhere and everywhere. But for me, taxi-travelling has never been particularly easy, let alone comfortable. The drivers are highly skilled and experienced, but notoriously reckless in the traffic. The vehicles can also be overloaded and unsafe.

The Department of Transport is aware of this, and has implemented a R7.7-billion (US$1-billion) taxi recapitalisation programme, aiming to replace up to 80% of the country’s taxi fleet by 2010.

Owners who want to exit the industry or buy new vehicles are offered R50 000 ($6 720) for each unroadworthy minibus taxi that they send to accredited agencies for scrapping. New government regulations dictate that minibus taxis must be fitted with seatbelts for each passenger, have rollover bars, a type-two braking system and commercially rated tyres of sizes 185R or 195R. Some R353.5-million ($47.5-million) has been paid out in scrapping allowances, allowing taxi owners to revamp their ageing fleets with newer, safer vehicles.

Taxis are widely used in South Africa, with 65% of public transport commuters relying on them daily, as they’re convenient and cheap – an inter-city trip usually costs less than R10 ($1.30). Drivers run set routes, but often pick up and drop off commuters anywhere in between.

Knowing the right hand signals and lingo when stopping and boarding a minibus taxi is key to a successful journey.

Getting the signs right

In the small town of Howick in KwaZulu-Natal province, where I grew up, only two signs were used to flag down a taxi. You pointed your index finger upwards to signal for a taxi to Pietermaritzburg, the nearest city, or you pointed down to indicate you wanted a ride back home to Howick. When you were ready to get off the taxi, you just said “bus stop” and the driver would let you out at the next stop.

When I moved to the biggest city in the country, Johannesburg, life got a bit complicated. First, I had to get used to the local sign: a downwards-pointing index finger. This indicates that you’re staying in the general area, just needing to go a little distance further. To get to any other area, you have to master quite a complex hand-sign system (PDF, 2 MB).

To get to Johannesburg CBD from the northern suburbs, you point your index finger upwards – this will tell a driver to take you to the bustling south or west side of the city. Putting out all five fingers, like a high-five, says you want to travel further north in Johannesburg, or east.

As you make your way to the outer-lying areas and the townships, the signs become more elaborate. To get to a point called “stop twelve” in the affluent suburb of Kyalami, north of Johannesburg, you have to diagonally cross your arms in front of you. The crossed arms resemble a road sign the taxis pass just before the pick-up point. If you don’t signal, the driver won’t stop.

For residents of Diepsloot, a small township north-west of Johannesburg, stopping a taxi is a bit easier. Due to the bumpy roads there, commuters dip one hand up and down in a wave-like motion to say they need a ride.

To go to Randburg, also north-west of the city centre, your choice of sign is dependent on where you’re coming from. If you’re in central Johannesburg, pointing your hand straight up is good enough. But if you’re outside the local mall in Cresta, a little to the west of Randburg, you have to make poking gestures with your index finger over your opposite shoulder, to signal for a taxi to Randburg. Simply put, commuters have to point backwards, showing where Randburg is in relation to the mall.

Residents of Dobsonville in Soweto who need to travel to Leratong hospital in Kagiso, a neighboring township, need to make a similar poking movement, but with a slight scoop of the hand before pointing behind – the logic here is also based on location.

To head to Fourways, just north of Sandton, simply hold out all four fingers with your thumb folded into your palm. To get to the large township of Thembisa, east of Johannesburg, make a “T” by putting one hand horizontally and the other vertically underneath it. Going by taxi to Cosmo City, west of Johannesburg, is easy: simply hold out your hand in a semi-circle to make the “C” sign.

Now you’re on, but how do you get off?

Once you’re on the taxi, it’s very important to know what to say to get off, how to say it and when to say it. You can get off just about anywhere along the route; there are no official stops. Before getting the taxi to stop, look out for nearby road or landmarks you name, loudly, for the sake of the driver. For example, shout “stop sign” 10 seconds before the sign, and the driver will make a plan. But don’t shout too early or too late, because chances are you’ll miss the drop-off point.

The other popular phrase is “after robot”, which means, of course, that you want to get off after the traffic lights, keeping in mind there’s no phrase that indicates you want to get off before the robot. If the robot is red and the taxi stationary, you are expected to get off there and then – in this case the taxi won’t stop again “after robot”. How you say this phrase is  important: it must be loud and deep, pronounced “uf-dah robot”.

The two leading phrases used by taxi commuters is “shot’ left driver” and “shot’ right driver”, indicating left or right. Again, you must be loud, but not as deep, pronounced with a sense of excitement in the voice.

Get all this right, and you’re in for a ride of your life. Catching a taxi will take you on an audacious African journey not to be experienced anywhere else in the world.