In 1987, the apartheid government of South Africa began easing the restrictions on taxi licenses, which for all practical purposes meant two things: that for the first time black South Africans could get them, and that passenger vans could now legally be used as taxis. A new industry was born: the minibus taxi.
Today, an estimated hundred thousand minibus taxis take more than ten million South Africans to and from work each and every day. They account for about two-thirds of the nation's public transport. And opinions on them are, to put it charitably, mixed.
Part of this is because the different share-taxi "associations" (which is to say, mafia families) engaged in a bloody war with each other well into the mid-1990s. Partly it's because minibus taxis tend to be in poor condition generally, although this is much less the case now than it was a decade ago. In part, it's because the taxi drivers have a bit of a reputation for extreme recklessness as they race along their routes.
And let's be honest... in part it's because all of the people in the minibus taxis are black, and the vast majority of those driving their own cars are white.
With all the emotions we had approaching our trip to South Africa, nowhere were they more mixed than when it came to minibus taxis. On one hand, they seemed like an incredibly fascinating facet of South African culture, one that few travelers seemed to explore. On the other hand, everyone we talked to pretty much agreed that if we tried to use minibus taxis we would end up dead – the only disagreement was whether we would be robbed and murdered or die in a flaming wreck.
So, having said all of that, let's talk a bit about minibus taxis, shall we?
A minibus taxi is what is known as a "shared taxi," which means – as you've probably astutely guessed – that you share it with other people you don't know. You either flag one down (more on this in a moment) or board it at one of the many, many taxi stands ("ranks") scattered about South Africa. There are no schedules or set departure times – they depart the taxi ranks once they're completely full, so if you climb aboard a fairly empty one you may have to wait for a little while until it sets out.
(A quick note of reassurance to our friends who have taken shared taxis in Southeast Asia – "full" in South Africa doesn't mean what it does in Thailand or Cambodia. There will generally be three or four people sitting in each row, not seven. Also, you can totally take a minibus taxi with your full pack on. It might not be all that comfortable, but half the other people in the taxi will be lugging around more stuff than you are, so don't be shy.)
From there, each taxi makes its way along a predetermined route from one taxi rank to another, picking up and dropping off passengers along the way. In a big city like Johannesburg, they comprise a rather large proportion of the traffic, and their unannounced stops in the middle of the street may be part of why other drivers tend to so detest them.
Not us, though.
We have a confession to make: we're in love with South Africa's minibus taxis. They are probably our very favorite form of public transportation anywhere, ever.
For starters, they meet the two main requirements we have of public transport: they go just about everywhere, and they are ridiculously cheap. To give you an idea of just how cheap, getting to the center of Johannesburg from the northern suburb of Sandton via private taxi could easily run you a couple hundred rand (around $28 USD). The same trip via minibus taxi cost us each nine rand (about $1.25 USD).
We also found them, for whatever reason, extraordinarily comfortable. Indeed, I developed an amusing habit of falling asleep on them. Nearly every single time we took a minibus taxi anywhere, I'd invariably fall asleep at some point. (This is one of those places where it's nice that there are two of us, so that Jessica could wake me up when it was almost time for us to get off – who knows where I'd have ended up otherwise!) One notable thing about this is that I'd somehow never fall asleep leaning on Jessica, but rather (without fail) on whomever was on the other side of me. I'd tend to jerk myself awake just as it was happening and apologize profusely – the invariable response was great amusement, so I suppose in the end it was a good way to make new friends.
As for twin dangers of accidents and murder, we found little reason to fear.
First of all, and I fully admit that the following perception is based solely on the twenty or so minibus taxi rides we took and anecdotal evidence isn't reliable and yadda yadda yadda – but please. In terms of reckless driving, these guys don't have anything on our beloved Philadelphia. Heck, they don't have anything on old ladies going to church in Philadelphia. I know it might feel different when you're driving alongside them rather than tucked inside one, but they really did feel like some of the safest taxi drivers we've ever encountered. I'll take a kombi (minibus taxi) ride in Johannesburg over a taxi ride in Lima any day of the week.
And as far as crime goes, it could hardly have felt safer. I mean, we always travel smart and when we're making our way from one place to another is when our instincts tend to be on highest alert, but without exception we found minibus taxis to be full of incredibly friendly, helpful people. You need to have your wits about you at the taxi ranks, for sure, just as you do at any bus station. But the outright hysteria we tended to encounter regarding the safety of minibus taxis seems to be pretty unfounded.
To repeat, we loved taking minibus taxis in South Africa. Love love loved it. The next time we go there, it might be just to ride around in them some more.
One of the things that really reassured us about taking minibus taxis in South Africa was the website for an eco-lodge named Bulungula, which recommended that people try to make their way to the lodge using only public transportation. When we visited that beautiful place, we found ourselves chatting with Dave Martin, the man who had founded it. We told Dave how he had helped encourage us, and he was thrilled to hear it. He said he was endlessly perplexed by the fact that backpackers avoided South Africa's minibus taxis. "It's really weird," he chuckled. "A lot of the backpackers who rent cars in South Africa do so because they're convinced that the minibus taxis just aren't safe. But those same backpackers won't blink twice before hopping into a shared taxi in Botswana or Cameroon."
He made a good point. The aura of fear that surrounds minibus taxis in South Africa generally doesn't extend to other countries, even neighboring ones. And since the best way to not be afraid of something is to understand just how it works, let's take a closer look at minibus taxis.
Our preference is to check the taxi rank out ahead of time whenever possible. Our fist minibus taxi was one we took from Sandton (where we were staying with my great-aunt and great-uncle) to Joburg's CBD (central business district, or Joburg-speak for "downtown"). A day ahead of time, we made our way over to the Sandton taxi rank and had a good look around, familiarizing ourselves with the layout of the place. We wandered among the taxis, making conversation with drivers and passengers, and figured out how to get to CBD. We also found out the price (9 rand), so we'd be able to be sure we weren't overcharged. (Sidenote: perhaps surprisingly, given the reputation of taxi drivers the world over, no one ever tried to overcharge us.) That way, when we returned the next day to try and make our way into town, we were able to confidently stride directly to the proper minibus as if we had done this a million times before.
When you board a taxi, find yourself a seat – our personal favorites were the seats one row from the back. If you sit in the very back row, you might find the sun beating down on your neck through the back window. If you sit in the front with the driver, you'll need to handle the money (more on this in a bit).
As mentioned before, minibus taxis don't depart until full, so you may be sitting there for a while – if you're taking one to the airport or anywhere else with a set schedule, make sure to give yourself plenty of time. In our experience, the local Joburg taxis tended to fill up and head out quite regularly – I'm not sure we ever waited more than 10 minutes for one to depart. We once waited nearly an hour for one going from Port St. Johns to Umtata, though! Consider yourself warned.
At the long-distance taxi ranks in particular, people may wander by with food and beverages they'll happily sell to you through the van window. Once the bus nears capacity, the driver will appear for the first time, and he'll reach through his window and start the engine. At this point, you and everyone on the bus will get excited whenever it looks like someone might board your minibus. Once you're completely full, the driver will get in and you'll head out on your way!
One of the coolest parts about minibus taxis is the sign language. You see, you can't just stand on the side of the road and wave down every white van that goes by – they might be going to a completely different place than you, and you'd be wasting everyone's time. So you use sign language.
Going to CBD? Point one finger straight up. Trying to get to Fourways? Make an "X" shape with your pinkies. On your way to Orlando in Soweto? Make an "okay" gesture. To get to the train station, make a fist and pump it around in a circle to imitate the wheels of the train. Really.
You don't need to worry about memorizing all of these hand signals, though. The easiest way to know how to flag down the right taxi is to ask someone.
For example, when Jessica and I visited Joburg's breathtaking Apartheid Museum, we made our way there using a combination of methods including a Rea Vaya bus and a twenty-minute walk. We'd seen tons of minibus taxis zooming past, so we decided it would be easier to just take one of them home again instead of retracing our steps. The trick being that we had no idea how to go about it.
We first made our way over to a (white) gentleman standing near the gate and asked him if he knew the right hand signal to flag down a minibus taxi to CBD. He responded earnestly that it wouldn't be safe for us to take a minibus taxi. After thanking him for his concern, we next went over to the (black) security guard and asked the same question. With an enthusiastic smile he not only told us where to stand and what gesture to make, but also how much it would cost (win!), before tossing in for good measure his wishes that we had a safe journey and a pleasant day.
(This was a pattern that would hold true throughout South Africa. Virtually every time we asked a white person about minibus taxis, they would tell us that trying to use them would certainly lead to misery and death. And almost every time we asked a black person for information on the same subject, they were immediately able to point us in the right direction. We find it particularly ironic that this duality was so perfectly illustrated at the Apartheid Museum.)
Once you know your gesture, go stand by the street and do it. No need to be flashy about it – you'll notice that most people do it only half-heartedly, so go ahead and do the same. Try and look bored. There, now you have the hang of it.
Invariably in the beginning you'll find yourself frantically waving your fingers at delivery vans and garbage trucks. No worries, everyone does that. They all look the same from the front, right?
When a taxi approaches and the driver thinks you might need his services, he'll give you a little honk. Smile and nod at him, still making your little gesture, and he'll pull over to let you in. (Ten other taxis will have already passed you at this point. They aren't ignoring you out of spite – they're all just full, or are going a different route than the one you're signalling.)
Before you get in, make sure to double-check with someone where the bus is going and confirm how much it will cost. (In a lot of places we make a point of asking other passengers this question, but here you can trust the driver to be straight with you.) Find a seat (other people may have to climb out of the van briefly to let you by) and then you're on your way!
(By the way, if you're not traveling alone it's worth noting that you might wind up waving down a taxi that only has room for one passenger. Even if there's two or three of you, they'll offer to take just the one person they have room for. No worries there, though – it's totally acceptable for you to politely decline so you can wait for a taxi with room for all of you to travel together.)
As with most everything about them, the way that payment works on a minibus taxi is awesome.
When the taxi leaves the rank, everyone just starts handing their money forward. For backpackers used to making bloody well sure that they don't give their fare to anyone not working for the transit company, this can take some getting used to. But really, it's okay. Hand your cash the to the person next to you – he'll make change for himself before handing it on. Someone behind you will pass you a handful of bills and coins, and they'll tell you a number (the number of people represented by the fare you've just been handed). Tap the person in front of you on the shoulder and hand her the money, telling her the same number. And so on.
The people sitting in the front with the driver collect the money and make change for anyone who needs it. (So don't sit up there if you aren't comfortable doing this, although we have to admit it can be great fun and the driver will usually help you out.) If the fare is nine rand, and they get handed 19 rand by someone who says "two," then they know that they have to hand one rand back. That rand then gets handed from row to row until it gets to the right person.
What's amazing about this is that it works. I don't know about you, but almost every time I've split a meal at a restaurant with a large number of people, it can be a pain in the ass to sort out who owes what and to make sure everyone kicks in their fair share. Here is a van full of complete strangers, and half of them are handing forward 20-rand notes when they only owe six, and just trusting that they'll get their change back. And yet they do, every single time. It's like a magic trick.
If you've flagged down the taxi, hand your money forward after you sit down. (Remember, you should have already determined your fare before getting in.) Also, if you're taking a bakke (pickup truck) taxi, you'll pay when the driver lets you out.
Obviously, a key part of taking minibus taxis is knowing when to get off. Most of the time we were taking them all the way to the taxi rank at the end of the line, and so didn't really need to worry as much about asking to be dropped off.
If you do need to get dropped off along a given route, though, a good approach is to familiarize yourself with your destination by wandering around it via Google Street View before your trip. That way you'll be able to recognize the area where you need to ask them to stop.
Give the driver a little warning, because if you tell him at the last second he'll have to lurch across three lanes of traffic without warning, and then you're not helping his reputation for reckless driving any, are you?
If you want to get off at a certain traffic signal, the phrase you want to call to the driver is "after robot," which sounds a little ominously sci-fi until you remember that "robot" means "traffic light" in South Africa. (One website helpfully suggests that you pronounce it "uf-dah robot," and that you speak in a loud deep voice, presumably because Darth Vader gets to be let off wherever the heck he wants, thank you very much.)
Generally, though, you just need to call out "short left driver" whenever you want to get off, and you'll get dropped off on the left side of the road. Or right in the middle, in the event that you're stuck in traffic. In this case, it is recommended you make your way to the sidewalk post-haste after exiting the vehicle.
Don't worry if you're sitting all the way in the back of a packed taxi – people will pile out to make room for you to exit. Generally, the seats along the left-hand side of the van "flip" up when unoccupied, to provide access to the rows behind. (If you're sitting in one of these seats, you may need to hop in and out of the taxi an awful lot as people get off and on.)
Also, while the condition of the average minibus taxis is apparently a heck of a lot better than it used to be, you'll still probably have to reach out the window to open the door from the outside – the inside door handle seems to universally be the first thing to break on a taxi.
There are several different kinds of minibus taxis, such as the difference between the standard kombi taxi and the bakke (pickup truck) taxi, which is generally used in more remote areas. One key differentiation to understand is that between local and long-distance taxis.
Long-distance taxis work in generally the same way as their local brethren, with two exceptions: they generally depart from a different taxi rank, and they might be much nicer. For instance, the three-hour taxi ride we took from Joburg to Rustenburg was in a full-fledged 22-seater, a real honest-to-goodness bus (and actually one of the nicest ones we've ever taken). The seats were nicer, the van was in better condition generally, and everything was a bit roomier. (I slept like a baby on that one.)
Sometimes the long-distance taxi ranks are located outside of town altogether. Sometimes (as with Joburg) there are several different long-distance ranks, servicing different destinations. So when you go to one you need to make sure that not only can you find it, but that it is indeed the right one. If you're not sure whether the rank you're at has any taxis going to your preferred destination, feel free to ask one of the drivers.
(Again, asking a driver is something we generally wouldn't recommend anywhere else in the world. But in South Africa, we found minibus taxi drivers to be universally friendly and helpful. One even left his bus and walked us several blocks to a different taxi rank to help us get to our destination.)
Part of what makes taking minibus taxis so fun is that there's so little in the way of instructions telling you how to do it. It's like a secret little subculture, one that virtually no other traveler we've met has experienced.
Sure, there have been some scary accident statistics in the past, but taking a cab in a lot of countries can be pretty hair-raising, and we found the drivers in South Africa to be among the safest we've come across. Sure, crime rates in South Africa can be intimidating and of course you need to be careful (especially in taxi ranks), but frankly the fear that people have about minibus taxis (and about crime in South Africa in general) tends to be overreaction bordering on hysteria.
I can't promise that if you take a minibus taxi you won't have an accident, or that you won't get robbed or whatever. But I can't promise that won't happen in Argentina either, or in London, or in your hometown. What I can promise you is that you don't need to be afraid, just careful, just like you would anywhere else in your travels. And have fun. And for heaven's sake, use minibus taxis to get around South Africa!
Because they're just that awesome.
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