South Africa's tenuous transit

Commuters board fleets of minibus taxis to get to work

It’s 6:15 a.m., and Amos Ntuli is standing in a dusty lot in Diepsloot Township, waiting in line with dozens of other passengers for a minibus taxi to take him to work. The distance is short, but the journey could take anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour, depending on traffic, accidents, and the frequent police roadblocks set up to nab unlicensed taxi drivers.

Mr. Ntuli is just one of the tens of millions of South Africans who use the estimated 70,000 minibus taxis in South Africa to get from townships like Diepsloot to jobs in the big city. Minibus taxis are either the most popular or the most reviled form of transportation in South Africa – and indeed across the continent. In South Africa, minibuses make up 65 percent of all public transport, and they are often the only way workers can commute the dozens of miles they must each day from the townships to work and back home again.

Passengers queue up at taxi stands, and never cut in line. They use hand signals to tell the driver where they are headed. Four fingers pointed up means the Johannesburg suburb of Fourways. A ride to the Brie Street taxi rank in downtown Johannesburg is three fingers pointed up. Diepsloot, named after a nearby stream, is indicated by waving one’s hand like water.

While passengers are well-behaved, taxi drivers are notorious for taking risks and breaking laws. They cut off other cars, jump traffic lights, or drive on the shoulder of a road to avoid traffic, and not surprisingly have twice the accident rate of other vehicles. But one driver, Bernard, says the faster he drives, the more passengers he can pick up, and the more money he can make.

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