I've been in Johannesburg for the past week, and I've been reminded of my first time here, back in 2005, just a few weeks after I'd arrived in Africa. I was driving a junker rental car on a mostly empty highway late on a Sunday afternoon, and I was trying to convince my then-girlfriend seated next to me -- who was living in South Africa -- that I'd figured out how to drive a stick-shift. (automatic transmission driving is the curse of a Southern California upbringing).
I'd stopped at a red light on a slight incline, and when the light turned green I stalled trying to get into first. A split-second later we were hit from the back and the car lurched forward. I turned around and saw it was a minibus taxi. Your instinct is to get out and inspect the damage, but when I moved to open the door, my girlfriend asked if I was crazy. "Drive," she ordered, and I did.
This was my introduction to the terror of the South African "taxis," who routinely run red lights, careen across lanes, clip other vehicles and, occasionally, run people over. The drivers inspire such loathing and fear that one must not confront them. In Nairobi there are few things I enjoy more as a driver than issuing a morally superior glower when I speed past an offending matatu. In Johannesburg, I'm told, such acts of self-righteousness are a death wish.
Robyn Dixon of the LA Times wrote this week about growing taxi rage among white South Africans following the death of a 16-year-old white schoolgirl who was struck by a taxi. The South African government is trying to regulate the taxi sector and has plans to open up a public bus system that would kneecap the taxi business. Rogue taxi drivers spilled onto the streets Tuesday in Joburg in a massive protest, blocking roads, forcing people off buses, bullying motorists and bringing much of the city to a standstill. The protest followed a similar demonstration in Cape Town a few months ago.
Everything in South Africa these days is viewed through the prism of next year's FIFA World Cup, which will be played here and is to this country as the Olympics were to China: a massively expensive national debutante ball. The fact that taxi drivers were able to paralyze the city -- at least one news account compared it to the anti-apartheid protests of the early 1990s -- raised fears of unrest during the World Cup.
But there's a broader problem with the taxi system. As Robyn writes, "The confrontation between taxi drivers, other motorists and the government amounts to one of South Africa's thorniest post-apartheid problems: how to provide a safe, efficient public transit system incorporating the wild and unregulated taxi sector that sprang up under apartheid as transportation for the underclass."
As in many African countries, the bus system represents the free market at its purest: a mostly informal but remarkably efficient system of bringing a vital good to the masses at an affordable price. More regulation would be good, and would probably save lives, but there are concerns that a government bus system -- which would start by pulling many taxis off the roads in the busiest sections of Joburg -- would enrich South Africa's well-connected business elite while driving up costs for consumers.
The Business Day newspaper this week put it this way: "We should not allow our displeasure with the taxi drivers, as unlovable as they are, to obscure the principle that they are working for themselves in a difficult and often hostile environment. And performing a vital public service."