Monday, 16 September 2013

Of taxis and drivers

Some of the people I admire in South Africa are taxi drivers. They are responsible for literally driving the country's economy when you consider the millions of commuters who rely on this mode of transport.

Everyday I take a taxi to work. Let me quickly point out that this is not by choice; I simply do not earn enough to afford a car of my own. More than three quarters of the people I commute with are in a similar financial situation as me though we never talk about this. I have silently concluded that this is the most important law amongst commuters; we don't ask each other why we are commuting. In certain conversations we may refer to owning cars of our own but I have since observed that such conversations are immediately followed by a quick silence; perhaps a sign that reality has set in and the thought of owning a car seems realistically distant. This is further testament of our economic status in the social hierarchy. With that said I am rather fond of the taxi.

There is no social classification amongst those who commute. This is because most of us who use taxis wish we were not subject to this form of transport. We have accepted that the taxi is the only economically viable means for us and with that we open up to each other in ways that are perhaps rare in other social settings. Similarly I have also witnessed rather alarming behaviour while commuting. I have seen drivers younger than myself hurl abuses at people old enough to be their parents. I have also had belly-wrenching laughs as a result of a joke or a story being shared by one of the commuters. In all fairness taxis are an experience that every South African should experience. Who knows, maybe we would be more tolerant of each other if we commuted together.

Month-end is a really special time for taxi commuters. This time is marked by the fact that the majority of the commuters have received their pittance after many hours of labour in their respective employ. It is during these times that the taxi driver will be asked for chama station by some commuter. Loosely translated, chama station refers to a pee stop. Such a stop is always requested by those who have had a couple of drinks that alter one's state of mind. What I have found impressive in this is that the taxi drivers usually have the patience to grant such a person such a stop. This despite the endless ques back at the taxi rank of anxious commuters eagerly awaiting to get home. Perhaps this is why the taxi drivers drive at such high speeds, more so at this time of the month. Mind you, less than one percent of taxi drivers are women.

Whenever I commute I always find time to observe the other cars on the road. From fancy cars to fast ones, the pristine and the not-so-roadworthy, I observe. I have also observed the people who drive these cars. There are those who just drive on, their minds on the task at hand I imagine. Then there are those who choose to wander while they drive. You can tell this type of driver by their wandering eyes when they overtake you or you overtake them. They will either have expressionless faces or an expression that compels you to look away. One particular type of driver has always fascinated me whenever I undertake these observations.

This is the type of driver who has arrived; the one who has made it. Allow me to quickly point out that those who think they have made it drive their cars while those who have actually made it are driven. The ones who have made it generally have no time to stare at people as they overtake the taxis that carry them. I always imagine them to play classical music as they drive the luxurious sedans, not a worry on their faces. I sometimes imagine that they are rushing to some important meeting, or they have some pressing business that they need to attend to. Even amongst this type of driver there exists another kind, one who is king of the road.

This type of driver is actually driven, and usually has an escort of cars with flashing blue lights. They travel at lightning speed though I have observed that they never have pressing business. Let me rephrase that statement, my bias defeats me. They give us the impression that they have pressing business by driving at such high speeds. I suppose that this is part of their act. I recently observed a few of them clad in blue overalls speed past us one morning.

When I bought the afternoon edition of the local paper I learned that they had been on an election campaign, and as part of their campaign they had decided to make an appearance at a rural road construction site. They ironically took the time to also visit a few locals in the area and listened to their concerns and made promises to attend to the challenges the locals shared with them.

With the elections coming up soon I am sure I will be seeing more of this type of driver. I think my constant referral to them as driver really elevates their status because they sit at the back and get driven. In any case, society has already elevated them. You can tell this by their bulging physique. I always reserve them a seat next to whenever I climb into a taxi. My ride with them in a taxi is drawing nearer.