Making friends in Jozi (Johannesburg)

Imagine a 40 year old white woman on the side of Republic Road trying to hail a minibus taxi. Not too much of a stretch? Now imagine that this same woman just moved to Jo’burg. She does not know which taxi sign to use to indicate that she wants to go to Randburg, she does not know where to stand exactly so that the taxi expects that she may want a ride and finally, she only has about 40% vision, so she cannot really distinguish a taxi from a four by four family car. How likely is it that she will be able to get a taxi to stop?

Yet, there I was, hailing every token blonde mommy with her 2 darlings in her 4 X 4 hoping against hope… It did not work. I corner the first likely guy (young black guy walking purposefully down the street) and ask him to help. He teaches me about the downward pointing finger to show I want to go to Randburg, he tells me to wait just past the corner after the robot, which is where the taxi might expect me and he walks on. Yet 2 taxi’s drive by without picking me up. I look up and my helper is back.

“No, no, no, they are all showing you that they are full”, I will help.

As we wait, he tells me that he is a cleaner at Cresta and is walking home after his shift ended at 8am this morning. I tell him that I do not see well and that I am new to Jo’burg, having just moved here from the Cape. The taxi comes and as I get in he says: “here is my cell number, tomorrow you call me and tell me where you are , then I will explain the sighns to you. You now have a friend in Jozi”.

I am still smiling touched by this man’s generosity of spirit when my taxi pulls into the road with gusto exactly in the fashion that most irritates my husband when he is behind a taxi. “Don’t they look before they turn into the road?” I can hear him saying.  Behind my taxi a 4 X 4 family van swerves out of the way and honks loudly. The taxi driver honks back, leans over to me and says: “It must be a friend”.

“Everyone in Jozi is a friend it seems”, I muse to muself.

Eight months later and I am travelling a different route in a different taxi. I am now a seasoned traveller and far less confused. This time I am on my way from Empire Road via Emmerentia back to Randburg to take a taxi there to Nicolway to meet my husband. I have an hour to make the trip, but my cell phone is flat (yes, bad planning on my part, but for some reason I let it happen to me often). I seem to be the only passenger in the mini bus taxi – they usually do their best to be a full as possible.

‘You came just for me today’, I joke with the driver and get in.

He grunts shyly.

We are well on our way when he leans back and explains to me that we are taking a detour because there is a traffic cop ahead of us.

A part of me thinks like my indoctrinated white heritage demands: “what does the driver want to hide? These cabs are never properly roadworthy – trash cans on wheels the lot of them”. But I check that voice and ask: “Why is that a problem?”

“It’s weekend and he wants extra money.”

I deduce the rest of the explanation: He will pull us over for nothing and make us pay.

“Okay”, I say and smile. Five minutes later we were still trying to get back on the original route, but as Jo’burg roads go, we have turned to many times in the wrong direction and now we are lost.

I imagine that the driver knows his own route well, but doesn’t explore much off it. He has no idea where we are and how to get back. I look at my watch… The driver is stressing markedly and he feels embarrassed on top of that. Also, he has no way of filling his cab if he is on the wrong roads. Al this I gather from his body language, because, shy as he is, he does not talk to me much.

Don’t worry, i say, “ask someone for directions, everyone in Jo’burg is a friend.” He looks at me doubtfully, but finally slows down to call to a guy walking on the opposite side of the road. They converse in their mix of isiZulu and other languages and the guy comes over, jumps into the cab and starts pointing.

A few minutes later the taxi stops, the guy jumps off and the driver smiles at me: “I am right now.”

“See, everyone in Jozi is a friend”, I say.

My shy driver says nothing, but his hooter is happily honking away calling for more passengers. Soon we fill up and reach Randburg. I ask my driver the sign for Bryonstone  and I change taxi’s.

But the day is not done. The driver I hailed asks me where I am going and when I tell him he shakes his head: “No, you used the wrong sign, we are going to Sandton not Bryonstone. But we will drop you where you can get the right one.” The clock is ticking. Still, I may be lucky to make a quick transfer. At least they are friendly enough to set me on the right way.

They go on honking and smiling picking up more people. Then, after a while: “We changed our minds, we are taking you to Bryonstone.”

I shake my head: everyone in Jozi is a friend – except perhaps the husband now fuming and fretting because I am 15 min late, unreachable via cell phone and he knows I am travelling these @#$%ing taxi’s.