Helge Janssen, off to his Saturday market gig at the Shongweni Farmers' Market in a local cab.
Helge Janssen, off to his Saturday market gig at the Shongweni Farmers' Market in a local cab.

When travelling, I invariably use informal local transport: a trishaw in Singapore, a tuk-tuk in Thailand, ferries to criss-cross the islands in Greece, assorted trains and cramped public buses in Asia. Recently I felt like I had been stuck on top of a mechanical bull as the driver of a minibus taxi, hired by a non-profit organisation I went to Kenya to write about, careened at break-neck speeds along rutted dirt detours.

Given my penchant for jumping on anything that moves that will hopefully get me where I want to go in other parts of the world, I felt ashamed to be getting advice from Durbanites-turned-tourist, back on a brief visit from Australia, on how to catch one of the more than 120 000 officially registered minibus cabs that keep South Africa moving.

My friends were staying at a Berea B&B and had caught their first when a regular cab didn’t show. And they were hooked. “They’re easy, they’re cheap and the people are really helpful,” they said.

I was hesitating on the cab. And procrastinating on visiting the Saturday morning Shongweni Farmers Market.

The cab reticence had nothing to do with the bullet that whizzed through the window of Independent Newspapers many years ago during a turbulent period in the taxi turf wars. Rather, I’d heard you needed to know an elaborate range of hand gestures to work the cabs. And there is often that need to break the ice.

So when Helge Janssen – Durban teacher, artist and KwaZulu-Natal correspondent for the South African crafting site www.market-fleas.com – told me he leaves his Glenwood apartment at 5.15am on Saturdays with his delightful range of hand-crafted designer shweshwe wallets, walks 10 minutes to the Warwick Triangle taxi rank, catches a minibus cab to Pinetown and a second to Shongweni, sets up his market stall, then returns by taxi when the market closes mid-morning, I asked if I could make like a tourist, go with him, and in so doing kill the market bird and taxi bird with one stone.

We set off in the dark, wrapped against the morning chill, comparing notes on our Friday night exploits, checking out who else was on the streets at that hour (quite a few people) and who the cop car was swooping down on near Berea Road.

At the rank, Janssen headed straight to a line-up of cabs on the far left, asked “Pinetown?” to the driver of the first, and we took what turned out to be the last two seats. Which meant our vehicle was off in a flash.

The cabs run like clockwork and Janssen has been using them like clockwork since 2006.

He was working then as a teacher at Fulton School for the Deaf in Gillitts. “My motorbike died and was beyond redemption. The first morning I wandered around (Warwick taxi rank) asking questions.

“People are keen to help and show you the ropes. No, I am not aware of having to learn hand gestures.

“But in the three years I caught them to Fulton, two a day each way, I was never late for school. There was one near-accident, but it wasn’t our driver’s fault. Someone from another lane shot in front of him and he had to brake and everyone screamed.

“And once a guy pulled out a gun and started shooting at the taxi rank. There was pandemonium. Everyone scattered and I don’t know how I dived over the wall I suddenly found myself behind. But nobody was shot.”

Inside our bus, I quickly learn the ropes. We are three people per row, 15 in all including the driver. Someone in each row, who could be me, elects to collect the money. Our fee is R9 to Pinetown; R7 for the second leg, to Shongweni. The row monitor passes the money forward.

In the first bus the passenger next to the driver takes the money and sorts the change, which gets passed back. You take what you know you’re owed.

You quickly realise these are all working people. I might be having an adventure; they’re going to work.

Thuli, sitting next to me, guesses it’s my first time when I have to be told to get out the bus to allow a passenger to disembark. “Are you afraid, because you needn’t be?” she says.

“Should I be afraid of the speed?” I ask, “I hear they sometimes go really fast.”

“Yes, but then you ask them to slow down,” she says.

“Do they?” I enquire.

“Sometimes,” she laughs.

Thuli has come from Inanda. Each bus plies a route, back and forth. It cannot continue beyond its route or randomly cover other routes.

Thuli catches three cabs each way, six days a week, to her job at a plastics factory in Pinetown. She says sometimes a bus has a

conductor to collect the money; sometimes the driver does it himself. (We have a conductor on our final leg – a teenager who uses his hands and mouth, which our multitasking second and third drivers also do, to sort and count the cash and notes.)

People pile into the cabs with all manner of things. “And nobody complains, no matter what a person might squash in with,” says Janssen. “They know it could just as well be them the next time and they accommodate.

“And people are basically quiet on the bus,” he adds. “You occasionally get loud music but I’ve only had that in the city buses in downtown Durban.”

We have the radio on; people getting interviewed in Zulu and some in English about the Comrades and some occasional ditties I don’t understand.

Durban artist Pascale Chandler has been catching taxis for years. “For most people, the taxi industry represents a denture-rattling, audio-numbing danger ride. For me, it’s a way of life,” she says, adding that she finds it an incredibly reliable mode of getting from A to B.

“I love the vibe,” she explains. “Although I do miss the more civilised Mynah buses.”

Chandler has some tips: “It’s never a good idea to leap into an empty taxi,” she says. “You may think you’re going to be more comfy, but the hustling and hooting to solicit more passengers causes many delays and it can drive you crazy.

“I find it best to get on a semi-full shuttle and grab a front seat for fast exit. Further back you may get wedged and wilt at the pressure of large thighs and bosoms.”

Some taxis are groomed and slick, she points out. “Others complete wrecks with torn, bone-thread upholstery. Nobody cares, though. The mood is always warm and courteous. Using the taxis, I feel part of Durban and its people. I recommend it. Imagine a world with no car guard tips, no parking to worry about – and no potential hijackings.”

Janssen says he is invariably the only white person in the cab. Twice he’s felt the subject of a rant by middle-aged passengers. “But usually, I feel totally welcomed and accepted,” he says.

I did too. And it was great to be able to wander the Shongweni Market enjoying Hermann the German’s authentic European pastries; Chrissie Briscoe’s classic country cheeses; Janet Sawkins’s sublime Madeleines, The Pastry Shop goodies; plus snap a gazillion pictures. All without having had to drive out there and park.

I will be catching more cabs. And next time I head out to Shongweni, I will remember to take a big carry bag so I can shop. Nobody’s going to worry if I cram in with it on the return trip. - Sunday Tribune