White people don’t ride the minibus taxis in Joburg. That’s an over exaggeration. Once I saw a white person riding a minibus taxi and they were terrifying. They had a big mess of greasy grey hair on their head and really tan, wrinkled leathery skin. They would turn around slowly in their creaky seat and say things like, “Mmmmm, my dearrrrrr. Your accent is mmmmmmm lovely.”
I’m a white, female American and I’m living in Joburg temporarily. Before I came here I searched the Internet far and wide looking for some sort of narrative that would, in some way, give practical advice for a solo female exploring Joburg with limited funds. There’s nothing. Joburg is my petri dish. I want to share what I find and hope that it helps others navigate Joburg with slightly more confidence than I have exhibited. I know that I go into each and every situation flailing with a scared look on my face. People have told me so. Maybe you don’t have to.
Like I was saying, white people don’t ride taxis. Middle to upper class (depending on how you define the former) black people don’t ride taxis. They are a mode or transport for people who cannot afford the luxuries of metered cabs or private cars. I supervised several black students from Monash University at the NGO where I work. I once mentioned that I took minibus taxis around town. They all responded with incredulous raised eyebrows. “What, don’t you guys take taxis?” I asked. “Uuuuh…no,” one of the females replied while silently scoffing. I felt like I was being belittled by one of the cool girls in middle school.
It’s no surprise that people don’t ride taxis if they don’t have to. The City of Johannesburg itself, the government arm that’s supposed to promote tourism, puts out websites like this one (side note: check out the PDF link on the right hand side of the site that breaks down taxi hand signals) that make taxi ranks sound terrifying. Granted, I understand that many of the tourists here have more money than I do and are seeking a more comfortable and luxurious travel experience and that the City of Johannesburg has this in mind. But the article only quotes people who have had negative experiences on taxis and describes taxi marshals as “rude, dirty, and illiterate” and “ruling with an iron fist.” Honestly, I couldn’t point out a taxi marshal to you if you asked because there’s a lot of chaos in the taxi ranks, so maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about. And maybe I have a higher tolerance for being treated with disrespect because my ego kind of disappears when I travel. However, I can tell you that the most disrespect I’ve ever been treated with in a taxi rank aligns with how any extremely busy and stressed out person might react when asked a question. If I had read the City of Johannesburg’s article before venturing out to take a taxi I would have lost all courage!
One of my biggest problems with Joburg is the social segregation between the rich and the poor. When I ask people why they don’t ride taxis they usually cite safety issues. I understand that. But I also know, through experience, that minibus taxis are relatively safe (during the day – I have only had a handful of night taxi experiences, so I can’t really speak to the safety). I think the status quo in Joburg is to isolate one’s self in the name of safety, which creates an entire culture that is so isolated that people no longer know what it’s like on the outside. They lose their ability to empathize. So ride a fucking taxi people. I will tell you how:
- The first thing you have to do is ask. People will help you. Well, sometimes they won’t. Sometimes people will look at you in shock because they don’t understand why YOU would want to ride in a taxi. Then they just say, “I don’t know” and walk away. You just have to ask the next person. It’s nothing personal; your situation just doesn’t make sense. The person will tell you the hand signal to make and they will tell you where to get off. There’s a different hand signal for every route.
- Before we talk about where to get off we have to talk about payment. This is how it works: Every taxi is a different price. Just ask the person next to you how much the taxi costs. If everyone enters a taxi at the same time (like at a taxi rank) one person in each row compiles everyone’s money. They pass it to the row in front and indicate how many people they are paying for. If it’s a row of three people, they will pass up the money and say “three.” All the money eventually gets passed up to the person in the passenger seat who counts all the money and passes back the change. If you don’t want to count money don’t sit in the passenger seat! Some people are into being the money counter. It’s best to have small bills on your person. A taxi typically costs anywhere between 8 and 15 Rand. If you are picked up on the side of the road by a taxi en route, just go ahead and pay when you get on by passing your money to the person in front of you and saying “one” because you are paying for one person.
- Now, to figure out where to get off either befriend your neighbor or befriend the driver. People are usually pretty helpful. Just tell them where you are going and that you need a little help. Be sincere. Be gracious. Tell them it’s your first time. Build a community and people will look out for you.
- If you have to change taxis at a taxi rank, here is the deal: First, you will probably have to ask where to catch your next taxi. Ask around! The trick is to try to only ask taxi drivers. The people running around asking where you are going are usually looking for a couple of coins in return. Taxi drivers are usually happy to help you (even if their face doesn’t show it – frown town). There is no secret map of taxi routes. People only know where taxis go by word of mouth. Drivers expect you to ask. Second, because taxi ranks are crowded and high energy, they are a good place for pickpockets. You’re not going to get mugged. Just keep your bag close. And don’t look so scared! Taxi ranks are an exciting place, especially MTN (aka Noord Taxi Rank, which is right in the heart of the CBD)
- To exit the taxi there are a couple different commands you can use. When you say, “After robot” the driver will stop after the next robot (aka stoplight). If there is no robot, just say, “short left” if you want to be dropped off on the left and, “short right” if it looks more convenient for the driver to stop on the right. Just make sure the driver can hear you. When the taxi stops everyone will make a path for you to exit the taxi.
- Sometimes a driver will tell you not to pay when you enter a taxi. This means that the driver is going to drop all the passengers off at a random destination where you will all get onto a new taxi. You will only have to pay the new taxi. Don’t worry. You will still get to where you were supposed to go. If you feel unsure, just ask.
See – Look how cool you look.