Johannesburg - Short left. “Alright my baby, alright my darly,” says the driver as she acknowledges the passenger ready to get off the taxi.
The route from town to Eastgate is filled with potholes and water puddles.
She doesn’t skip robots and always finds a decent spot to stop. She whines about the driver who speeds past us.
“His taxi is rattling, he obviously doesn’t take care of it well,” she says, shaking her head. Her name is Nkembi Mtshali and she has been a taxi driver for the past 13 years.
“A car doesn’t push, it drives,” she shouts to no one in particular as she stops to let an impatient driver into her lane.
She also pushes her way into lanes… politely. Her arm is always raised, indicating to other road users of her intention to switch lanes.
Mtshali went into the taxi business because she needed a job. She had taken in her deceased sisters’ children, finding herself suddenly with six more mouths to feed. “I needed a job and I could drive so I came here. And I can’t imagine ever doing anything else,” she says.
Even though she has been driving a taxi for over a decade, it’s still a novelty to her many passengers who still assume all taxi drivers are men. It’s not just the pedestrians who stare at her.
A man behind the wheel of a Mercedes-Benz, en route to Eastgate, stares through his rear-view mirror until the robot turns green.
Mtshali’s window stays wide open as she greets people along the way.
“Yes boy boy.”
She waves to the young man who calls the robots near the Doornfontein UJ campus home. She points at a girl who used to catch her taxi when she was still at school. “She’s gained a lot of weight, looks older than what she is now.”
Of course there are stereotypes, Mtshali agrees. “How can there not be? People are always going to judge women. It’s just sad that they don’t realise working hard for your money is not limited to the job you do,” she says.
In her years of transporting passengers, surprisingly, women have been the most judgmental.
“Mamas are rude in the taxi. Ask me all sorts of questions, like why I’m doing a man’s job. It used to bother me, but now I laugh them off. They know no better.”
She says she was blessed to have been taken in by the people she works with – who showed her the ropes and threw her right in at the deep end when she had to start driving her taxi during a busy December.
Her favourite passengers are the women she picks up in Bez Valley. “If my taxi is full, they sit and wait for me to return again to fetch them. We chat and laugh all the way to their destinations.”
The women traffic cops also have a soft spot for her.
Mtshali is content because this is the job that has helped her fix her Dobsonville home and allowed her children to grow up with their needs taken care of.
When the children were younger Mtshali would wake up at 2am every day to boil their water. She’d put the water in a bottle and wrap it in a blanket so the water stayed warm.
Then she’d make their food and place it in the microwave, set it for them so all they’d have to do is press the button later that morning to warm the food.
“The grandpa that rented the room outside would then open up the gate for them to go to school and again when they came back home.”
As her taxi fills up with another load of passengers she borrows some polish from a fellow driver. Her bonnet has a little mark she has to clear off.
“My taxi is always clean, look I even make sure the interior is spotless. I don’t want any mess.” Cleanliness and comfort are big factors to her happiness.
She always wears takkies and jeans and sets her radio frequency to UkhoziFM. Her dreadlocks are tied back in a doek and she keeps a small blanket neatly folded by her side. She has to shift her seat closer to the steering wheel because of her small frame.
When her former boss died, his wife took Mtshali’s taxi away from her claiming she was no longer needed.
Not long after that she was back behind the wheel of another taxi because the men around her saw her worth.
“It gets hard, but even with all that the taxi can’t stop. It must move and make money. My children are proud of me.”
Sometimes she leaves work at about midday to check if the children have cleaned the house.
Now that they are all able to do things for themselves, Mtshali has some leeway.
“I wake up an hour later now, so when I get home I take a bath, eat and fall asleep.” - The Star