To read this article in Deutsch, Francaise, Italiano, Portuguese, Espanol, copy and paste the complete URL("http://www.generator21.net/africa1.html") and enter it in the box after you click through.
|The World's Magazine: generator21.net
Event # 229: In the Company of Eagles
The Barnes & Noble Search Engine
CARTOONS BY GASPIRTZ
G21 Digital Internet Postcards
G21 E-MAIL NEWSLETTER
MEMOIRS OF THE INFO AGE
MY GLASS HOUSE
G21/WEBTRIPS CARTOON NETWORK
EVERYONE LOVES "RECOMMENDED DAILY REQUIREMENT" but can't find their favorite article. No More! Here's *another* link to the complete ARCHIVES.
LAST WEEK's EDITION
For Deep Background visit the G21-Barnes & Noble Shop
OR get great books at the G21 BARNES & NOBLE SEARCH ENGINE
Minibus taxis, or kombis, are the most convenient, speedy, inexpensive public transport in South Africa. However, they are notoriously dangerous. Their boxy shapes hurtle, weave, and squirm along the highways and secondary roads, badboy corpuscles in the nation's arteries.
According to the Automobile Association's statistics, they account for 2-3% of the nation's vehicles but are involved in 17% of the nation's collisions, and with an average of 15 passengers they probably account for a sizable chunk of the 10,000 annual roadway fatalities. High competition, thin profit margins, and an abundance of testosterone drive the situation to its level of extremity. Indeed, the situation is so bad that the Toyota HIACE, a common kombi make, is grimly referred to as High Impact African Culling Equipment.
The degree of decrepitude of these vehicles is frightening. Bald tires are re-grooved, not retreaded--that is, grooves are manually cut into the smooth rubber. Steering wheels are not considered compulsory equipment and are often replaced by vice grips. Seats are worn down to the springs. Yet that's not to say that operators take no pride in their vehicles--they are often adorned with vanity windshield wipers and stickers indicating soccer team loyalties. Kwaito and American R&B are pumped through impressive, often-"borrowed" sound systems.
The vehicles are placed under incredible duress. The starts and whiplash-inducing stops are innumerable. The roads in the townships and "locations" -- ominously named black neighborhoods -- are badly potholed, dusty when dry and muddy when wet. The abuse undergone by the doors is a story unto itself.
A friend of mine living in Durban knew an engineer working for Toyota in South Africa. His group had tried several times, unsuccessfully, to push through a design change which would fortify the sliding door, built for a lifetime of 250,000 openings and closings. Now, every time a passenger gets in or gets out of a taxi, the sliding door is opened and closed. My own conservative calculations estimate that the average door would be opened and closed 250,000 times inside of two years. Toyota Japan couldn't believe the necessity for this design change, so Toyota South Africa drove a limping HIACE into a 40-foot container at the Port of Durban, closed the doors, and shipped it to Japan. The design change was approved immediately.
In response to public remonstrance, the government has attempted to initiate a regulation and recapitalization program, whose centerpiece is a five year, $300 million plan to replace the aging, unroadworthy fleet of 150,000 kombis with 18- and 35-seat buses.
The government's best efforts to reform the taxi industry have met with staunch opposition. The nation's taxi operators are frightened that the regulation and recapitalization program will squeeze many of them out of jobs. They fear that larger vehicles would mean fewer vehicles, and tighter regulations would squash their already tight profit margins.
The Soweto-based National Taxi Drivers Organization (NATDO) is one of the main bodies of opposition with whom the government has been negotiating. NATDO has been busy organizing mass protests, rolling roadblocks, and immobilizing day-long strikes. Participation in strikes is far from optional. The constant threat of mafioso-style enforcement and quick lethal retribution is ample persuasion. Many urban taxi operators are armed with considerable firepower. Gunfights between rival operators add 300 annual deaths to the considerable highway carnage. DeNiro's taxi driver character (post-haircut) would indeed be a lightweight at any Gauteng or Western Cape taxi rank.
Taxi ranks are bustling centers of transport for black South Africans. They vary in size from small dirt lots in one-horse towns to chaotic grand central stations like the main Soweto Highway taxi rank.
In Africa, where there's transport, there's people, and where there's people, there's commerce. Secondhand clothes, roasted mealies (corn), alarm clocks, cassettes, plastic wash basins, haircuts, hardboiled eggs, frozen treats, cold drinks, and the ubiquitous jumbo (and I mean jumbo) bag of cheese curls. Taxi ranks are also -- and here's that word again -- notorious for small-time thuggery.
The taxi rank is the embodiment of all that white South Africans are afraid of. They are those unlit, trash-strewn empty lots on the other side of town where all sorts of ne'er-do-wells lurk, poised to attack, in the shadows. This is what parents warn their children about.
A thirteen-year-old boy was leading my friend and me around a small seaside town near Durban. He steered us quickly away from walking past the taxi rank, saying "You'll get mugged or raped, I promise you." A handlebar-mustachioed cabbie in Bloemfontein was very reluctant to drop me at the taxi rank, admonishing me to seek other forms of transport.
I was on a long distance commercial bus travelling from Johannesburg to Harare which made a rest stop in Pietersburg at a quite unremarkable taxi rank/convenience store. We disembarked to stretch our legs and use the services. The only other white passenger was mortified, telling me (with a shudder), "This is the most horrible place I've ever been. In my life." That such a mundane, everyday place of transport for blacks could inspire such surprise and horror to a white was indicative of the degree of insularity between the races and of their use of public space.
Public space is where people of a variety of backgrounds have the opportunity to rub shoulders. One of the great intangible benefits of this commingling is the demystification of "the other."
In a healthy public square, even the most hardened, pea-brained bigot can see that other folks are just other folks going about their business and will admit, reluctantly, that some of "them" aren't half bad.
But many South Africans are so bound by fear that the very design of much of the urban setting prevents any of this interaction on common ground. Whites own the space behind the walls, blacks own the sidewalks. The most utilized outdoor "public space" for whites in Johannesburg is the "European" square deep in the heart of Sandton City shopping mall. It is ringed with fancy restaurants and shops on all sides and is sunken in the middle of the mall.
It's not that there are no middle-class blacks enjoying the consumer opportunities, and it's really not half bad for a mall, but it's telling that the public space of choice is buried deep in a concrete hole in the suburbs and not in the vibrant downtown which is abandoned by all whites by 6 p.m. every workday.
A South African friend once told me, "The heart is like a black taxi. Always room for one more."
Once you get inside a kombi, there is a warm and communal feeling. Squeezing in another passenger is a challenge, not a bother. In a minibus taxi, people share space. They are, for this reason, extremely courteous. The fare, in small coins, is wordlessly passed forward from the back seat, change is made by the next row and handed back as the new total is handed forward. No one short-changes, everyone helps collect. People are eager to help you navigate the confusion of getting the right taxi in a chaotic taxi rank.
On a long distance ride from Maseru, Lesotho to Johannesburg, the antiquated pink and white Datsun (yes, Datsun) kombi blew out a rear tire. At the time, I attributed the fact of the missing spare to the negligence of the driver, yet it was just an indicator of the narrowness of his profit margin. As was the missing jack. As was the non-functioning starter.
We dealt with the three-hour delay, on a roadside halfway between nowhere and its nearest neighbor, by sharing food and bug spray. We dealt with the missing jack by heaving the van up with our hands, high-fiving each other for a job well done.
We dealt with the... rather, I dealt with the non-functioning starter by being the designated push-starter throughout the course of the night. I was participating in an everyday drama, part of the collective unconscious of a nation. I had seen it on South African television: a credit card commercial showing the South African Olympic track team pushing their kombi down the highway because they were out of petrol and the last petrol station didn't accept a certain other credit card.
Even the... sorry again... notorious drivers can be real softies.
The ride was much longer than anyone expected it would be. Feeling guilty for having inconvenienced his passengers, the driver offered to drop everyone at their respective homes, deep in Orange Farm, Alexandra, Soweto.
I got the full moonlight tour of these notorious hotbeds of Apartheid rebellion and internecine violence. I saw such threatening things as lovers strolling hand-in-hand down the street. And everyone in the taxi had a great time making fun of the driver for getting lost and helping to figure out how to get us out of unmarked, unlit, potholed mazes. We finally arrived in downtown Jo'burg's taxi rank at 5 a.m. and I made the driver drop me at a private taxi, because the present situation was a little too notorious.
In two and a half months of travel in South Africa, I never saw another white person in a minibus taxi or waiting at a taxi rank. Hopefully, that will change if the government is successful in addressing this vital public safety issue. The simple fact of different folks sharing transport would help alleviate the de facto segregation that plagues South Africa and much of the world. It's a shame, because this type of segregation is a missed opportunity to examine the "notoriety" of the people, places and things about which we are warned.
DAVID ANSEL - Sixth-generation Baltimorean David Ansel cannot shake the "bourgeois bohemian" label. He often wears cutoff shorts with expensive sandals. He likes rock music with that punk edge but can't stand low-fi recordings. He eats street food with the masses but wrinkles his nose if a vinaigrette is too obvious. He makes a living programming computers, teaching yoga, and faux finishing in his surrogate home of Austin, Texas. He laments the demise of the front porch and thinks that our world has too many parking spaces. He likes to steal recipes from his friends' moms. He can be reached at email@example.com. This is his first piece for the G21.
© 2000, GENERATOR 21.E-mail your comments. We always like to hear from you. Send your snide remarks to firstname.lastname@example.org.