We are all equal in death, and we are all equal in the face of the homicidal South African minibus taxi driver. We’ve come to accept death as inevitable through centuries of experience. In less than half a century, we’ve come to accept the utterly disdainful way with which minibus taxi drivers treat all people, inside and outside their death-mobiles.
We joke about it all the time, but, tragically, it has become a defining feature of South African life. A friend once remarked to me, “I drive really well and I’ve never had an accident, but I need car insurance just in case I come face to face with a taxi driver.” I’ve repeated this same sentiment myself to other people. If you get car or life insurance for only one reason, let it be that you drive on the same roads as those dreaded minibus taxis.
It doesn’t matter who you are, rich, poor, infant, elderly, dressed up or dressed down, we are all equal when at the mercy of a taxi driver. They cut us off in traffic, overtake through intersections and drive in the emergency lane. They have absolutely no regard for the rules of the road. They are not bound by the law.
If you have to take a taxi, expect that the driver does not wait for you to sit down before he drives off. If you are not careful, you will find yourself on the floor of the taxi. Take some earplugs if you take a Cape Town taxi because the music is so loud it sends vibrations through anything nearby.
There is a telling joke about a taxi driver who died and went to heaven. When he arrived, he was received better than the priest who arrived at the same time as him. This was because he had kept more people praying more fervently and more frequently than the priest could ever have imagined, and had delivered more people to heaven than most mass murderers.
Again and again we see taxi accidents which kill a dozen people at a time. This week yet again, a minibus taxi was involved in a crash with a train in Cape Town. This crash killed nine children, and left four critically injured. Police say the taxi driver had decided to take a chance and go around the boom gates which block off a railway crossing. Other cars had already stopped, and the taxi driver thought he could make a run for it before the train, completely misjudging its speed.
This story, as shocking and horrific as it is, is neither surprising nor unusual. It is typical of taxi drivers. Here’s an industry that is completely immune to all rules and seldom, if ever, pays anything towards the tax pool – though it is one of the most lucrative industries in the country. Minibus taxi drivers are the kind of people who are not ashamed to appear on television defending their right to rape a woman who wears a short skirt.
How does this horrific situation continue to plague our society? How is it possible that we can remain hostage to those whose livelihood depends on us? Those who are actually meant to serve the public?
Minibus taxi drivers’ behaviour makes for great dinner party conversation – the stories and experiences, the jokes – but with so many millions of lives at stake and even the very notion of the Rule of Law, our law enforcement – and the full might of government – have to do more. Much, much more.
Xhanti Payi is a writer short of a few best selling books and a Nobel Prize. He works as an economist, researcher and advisor to various institutions. A staunch believer in clever blacks and would-be clever blacks short of opportunity. Proper pronunciation of the click is optional.