Johannesburg - Jean Palmer drives fast. The Freedom Park taxi driver is intent on getting her commuters to their destinations quickly, on time, and safely.
Palmer has been in the taxi business for 20 years, but she’s an unusual sight - a woman driver in a male-dominated industry. Still, it doesn’t stop her from getting up at 3.50 most mornings to get ready to hit the road.
Her outfit of choice is ordinarily trousers and comfortable shirts. Her shoes have thick soles - she prefers these to protect her foot from the clutch. Some days she wears a skirt, it just depends on her mood. She needs to be comfortable for a long day of up to 15 hours. Sometimes she has to get under the taxi to reach the engine, change a tyre or check the brake pads - certainly not practical in a skirt.
But she wouldn’t change her experiences for anything.
“It’s a business I’ve known all my life. My father was a taxi owner. My sister is a queue marshal. All these years later, I’ve learnt how to survive,” she says, driving her Freedom Park-Eldorado Park-Kliptown route on a hot spring morning.
Palmer, 53, worked in a factory in Industria, south of Johannesburg, for 12 years. When the factory began to battle financially in the mid-1990s, she decided to use her savings to buy a minibus and employ a driver.
When the factory closed, being without a job and having problems with employees persuaded Palmer to drive her taxi.
“I was one of the first taxi operators to go into Freedom Park when it was a new housing settlement. That’s how I created a group of loyal customers - they knew I would be here for them,” she says.
It did not matter to them that she was a woman. Many of her customers consider her gender a plus. They say she’s caring and more careful on the road.
Palmer’s busiest times are between 5am and 8am - the morning rush. At this time, she picks up her ‘specials’ as she calls them, her regular passengers.
One of them, Shariffa van Dyk, has been commuting with Palmer for almost two years.
”I was struggling with transport to Nancefield when Jean told me she could make a plan for me. Ever since then I’ve been going with her,” Van Dyk says. “She’s a good person. She makes sure we get to work on time.”
Palmer even has her regulars’ phone numbers, and they have hers. If she’s running late, she calls them.
“It’s not nice to leave people behind,” she says.
But driving taxis can be hectic. Road rage, accidents, taxi turf wars and even criminals pretending to be passengers are just some of the problems.
This worries Palmer’s daughter Thabi, who says she will not be following in her family’s footsteps in the taxi industry.
She has set her sights on becoming a teacher.
“I don’t like my mother’s career because it’s sometimes dangerous,” the 23-year-old says with a frown.
Mom is picking her up at a filling station, but Thabi is expected to pay the full fare, like all of Palmer’s passengers.
Palmer says the sexist attitudes of others in the taxi industry are among the biggest challenges.
At taxi association meetings, her comments and suggestions are sometimes disregarded. She has walked out of meetings to show her anger at their attitudes.
“I have a big mouth, I stand by what is right,” Palmer says.
Provincial Women’s Desks
There are a handful of other woman taxi operators across the country and they face similar issues. Earlier this month, the South African National Taxi Council established provincial desks to deal with some of these issues. A national initiative is in the pipeline.
Memory Modigoe, national deputy chairwoman and chairwoman of the Gauteng Women’s Desk, says these steps are long overdue.
“Most of the women in this industry are widows,” says Modigoe, who owns a taxi. “They are not informed about running the business and they are vulnerable. We want to create a space where women can be taught how to run their business, and where they receive the necessary support.”
Modigoe says her passion is to empower woman operators and create a platform where their issues are taken seriously.
“I came into this business after my husband, a taxi owner, was shot and died. I was afraid, but I made a decision I would run this business. We want women who are in the position I was in to see we are here for them.”
With 17 years of experience, Modigoe feels she can help other women.
Back in Palmer’s taxi, the atmosphere is homely. Regulars chat like friends. The vibe is a testament to Palmer’s warm, bubbly nature.
She doesn’t want to be driving her taxi until she reaches retirement age. For now, though, she will keep taking her passengers where they need to go - it makes her happy.
Her office is on the road, so she packs a lunch box, normally with leftovers from last night’s supper, or she will have a breakfast of tea and magwinya (vetkoek) which she buys once the morning rush has died down.
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