Submitted by Judy Sikuza

Many constituents have labelled the Gautrain as “a train for the rich” and feel that the project is a waste of funds that could go to alternative transportation projects. I am sure numerous taxi drivers would agree with the latter component. After all, who needs a fast, high-tech transport system like the Gautrain when we already have our “speedy Gonzales” — the taxi? And just like the underground train system of London or Washington, DC, if you missed the last taxi, you’ll catch the next one within two minutes and 28 seconds!

I am sure that most of us attended driving school under the K-53 rules or its predecessors. However, I do not think I can assume that our taxi drivers went through the same system as we did. I think there is a secret driving school for taxi drivers that is actually exclusively run by the traffic department.

One can only imagine the introduction to these sessions.

“Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to K-Fifty whatever — because under this driving code, you really can do whatever you want! Those of you who learnt how to drive before coming here will have to unlearn all the bad habits you picked up, like stopping when the robots are red. There are five simple rules that you need to adhere to, and once I see that you have mastered them, I will hand you your taxi driver’s licence:

“Rule one: if you are in front when the robots turn red, then you can go because everyone ‘understands’ that you are in a rush.

“Rule two: the stop sign means you should yield.

“Rule three: you are allowed to stop randomly in the middle of the road with no obligation to put on your hazards to worn those behind you.

“Rule four: the solid white, orange or red lines mean that you can overtake other cars. You can actually drive on the other side of the red line, especially during peak times.

“Rule five: remember that the traffic officers are on your side, so don’t worry about being stopped and reprimanded for any of the above actions.

“So, if there are no questions, then let us head off for our first lesson!”

My friends laugh at me when I say this, but honestly, for me this is the only feasible explanation why taxis are allowed to operate the way they do. Although a colossal amount of citizens (about 14-million a day nationwide) use taxis to commute, I still do not believe that it gives taxi drivers the right to drive like they own the road.

I know a couple of people who feel it is an injustice that taxis have received their own lane for peak time on the N2 to Cape Town. What makes the workers in taxis more important than the workers in cars? Ultimately, they all have to be at work at the same time. But some argue that the new lane is better because it allows the taxis to cause fewer accidents and less congestion in traffic. The implicit message of such a statement is that we cannot change the behaviour of taxi drivers, so let us try to find ways to accommodate them. This apathetic mindset does not sit well with me.

So, what about the passengers in taxis? How do they feel about the way taxi drivers drive? As a daily taxi commuter, I took the time to ask some passengers how they felt about taxis and taxi drivers. Some said that they liked the fact that they arrived early at work because the taxi drivers “made a way”. However, some said that they did worry about their safety but that the taxi was the closest mode of public transport for them.

One of the main reasons why the Minister of Transport, Jeff Radebe, introduced the taxi-recapitalisation programme was to increase safety on the roads. The safety requirements under the programme are:

  • seatbelts;
  • roll-over bars;
  • type-two braking system;
  • commercially rated tyres: size 185 R or 195 R for the minibus;
  • warning markings;
  • wheel bands;
  • tamper-proof speed governors (100km/h will be set as the maximum); and
  • diesel-fuelled.
  • In reality, however, these requirements are not adhered to. Many taxi owners still use the old taxis where seatbelts and even speedometers are non-existent. In cases where seatbelts and speedometers are functional in the taxi, drivers and passengers seldom use them. The condition of some of these taxis is atrocious, with some doors needing rope to be closed shut.

    Growing up in the Xhosa culture, I was brought up to believe in the spirit of ubuntu: you are who you are because of others (so do not try to appear smarter than others or will you will receive the just punishment). Well, this statement proves true in my experiences of taxi rides. Since no one wears safety belts in taxis, anyone who dares to “break” this norm is rendering themselves as an object of opprobrium and scorn.

    One day, while sitting in the front seat, I put on my safety belt and the taxi driver said: “Mmm, ucinga fan’u kuba ungu mlungu nje ngoba enxiba iseat belt. [Mmm, she thinks she is white; wearing a seat belt and all.]” I found this to be a particularly arbitrary statement because black people in cars wear safety belts. Therefore, my act of wanting to be safer on the road resulted in me being reproached for “deviating” from the norm. So clearly the expected decorum from passengers is just to sit quietly and let the taxi driver “do his thing”, hoping and praying that they arrive alive.

    I am not oblivious to the fact that it is not just taxi drivers that drive fast and recklessly; many citizens are guilty as well. But I think we have all seen the manifestation of taxi drivers’ attitudes by the way they behave on the road. I would really appreciate some commentary and suggestions on how we or the government can influence taxi drivers’ behaviour so that we can have safer roads on which to travel. And, even more interestingly, commentary on whether citizens believe anything can actually be done to curtail the taxi problem.

    Some people might say that if you have a problem with taxis, then do not ride them. But I do not believe in running away from the problem and complaining elsewhere. I believe that sometimes change has to be initiated from “within”. I think that taxis are a very valuable resource in our country and should not be disbanded. I mean, nothing can replace the joys of the sense of community one gets from the conversations one has on a taxi — and not forgetting the chicken-eating festival held every day! But in all seriousness, I cannot tout for my 30-minute time gain when I see that it is gained at the expense of other cars on the road and, more importantly, people’s safety: both in cars and taxis.

    Judy Sikuza will be pursuing her master’s degree in industrial psychology in the US as a Fulbright Scholar: 2008. She is a fervent follower of God, but does not consider herself a conventional, dogmatic Christian since she finds delight and value in learning from those who are different from her. Besides dreaming of becoming a rock star, her pursuit to effect change lies in her five seemingly dichotomous passions: business, sport, drama, politics and education (training and development). However, she has realised that the specificity of the modem is not important since there is a common vision behind all her passions. This vision is to emancipate and empower the people of Africa to reach their full potential.

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