Meet the Minibus

Minibus: (noun) typically a 16-passenger van that works like a bus in that it has a general route, but like a taxi in that it can drop people off at non-designated stops along the route and can be hailed from anywhere; operated by a two-man team consisting of a driver with flagrant disregard for traffic laws, and a herder with a projecting voice and keen acrobatic abilities.

Minibuses are a common form of transportation in the city. The taxis take people to all major towns and suburbs in and around Capetown. They are an affordable and relatively reliable form of transportation (reliable compared to the Metrorail aka Metrofail as it is known to locals). But don’t get too comfortable–it’s not your local Checkercab.

The driver careens in and out of lanes, screeching to a haphazard stop to pick up passengers or drop off riders. He often starts driving before the sliding door is fully shut, leaving a few passengers vulnerable to getting sucked out of the cab, like Sandra Bullock in Gravity but without the view. The main draw of the minibus taxis is their speed–the driver will do what it takes on the road (or maybe off-road) to get travelers from point A to B. He slithers between cars and city buses, snaking in and out of traffic, honking at passer-by either in warning or invitation. Meanwhile, the herder whistles, shouts, and waves to people on the streets to get them aboard. Sometimes, he will jump out of the moving van to run up and down the streets to find people to ride his minibus. The herder also collects fares (rates vary by destination) and adjusts seating to facilitate smooth boarding and exiting. Their whistling and catcalls make them seem dodgy, but the minibus operators are trustworthy–if they don’t have enough change for you right away, they remember to give it to you later.

Although the van typically has a limited number of seats, the driver/herder team work to fill it up to maximum capacity, far exceeding the number of seats. For instance, my bus last Friday had 25 passengers. Once the seats are filled, the remaining passengers sit on milk crates between seats; two people sit back to back between the driver and passenger seat in the front; there are removable, cushioned plywood slabs placed in the walkways between rows of seats; and finally the herder can crouch to allow another passenger to squeeze into his fold-over seat. Seat-belts are clearly not an option, but with that many bodies, unless you’re on the edge or within projectile range of the windshield, you have some protection.

On my first minibus ride, I boarded the taxi from the central minibus depot. It is a hub for all the area’s minibuses, so people gather at the different stations, lining up to fill the leaving taxis. There are vendors selling a variety of goods ranging from nail clippers and super glue to snacks and stickers. Minibuses are not popular among tourists or the upper echelons of society, so I definitely stood out while waiting for my ride. On the way home, I was sandwiched between an old drunk and a young student. Though the former’s unabashed blubbering was a bother, my ride only cost R7 (about $0.70) as compared to my R70 private taxi ride, and I got to ride home with 23 of my closest friends. After all, nothing brings people together like united disdain for rush hour traffic, midday drunks, and an overzealous herder trying to put tall or pregnant people in the back row of a full minibus.

Every minibus ride is a story in itself, but jokes aside, the taxis are an excellent form of transportation all over South Africa. Fourteen million people ride one everyday–almost 2 in every 3 South Africans rely on the beat-up white vans as their main source of transportation. (Capetown In fact, they are the only mode of transportation some people have around the city, no matter the circumstance. Women in labor depend on the taxi to get them to a hospital; students use them to get to class; workers use the taxis daily; the cleaning ladies who work at my hostel use them to get home after a long day. Recently, however, locals fear brewing violence.

At least seven people have been killed in the past two weeks in the Cape suburbs as a result of taxi-related violence, dubbed taxi wars. Two rival taxi associations are in a turf war over their routes and are accusing one another of hiring hitmen targeting taxi drivers. This is not the first time violence has plagued the minibuses. Taxi wars are a reoccurring theme since the 1980s when the government relaxed taxi regulations. Most fights emerge as rival taxi associations encroach on the more lucrative routes of another group. It is like West Side Story (as told by a Minibus) with each group using price-fixing, hit men, and other gang-like tactics. Lawbreaking is not limited to the taxi gangs: following the end of Apartheid, the taxis were often targets of political violence. Opposing parties fueled the flames of the shaky taxi industry to create further political tension and instability. Hundreds have been killed, with 1999 as the bloodiest year, resulting in 258 deaths.

It is a sobering thought that we previously feared for our safety at the hands of the drivers, but in the cycles of violence, innocent riders were targets of political attacks, taxi gang wars, and senseless gunfire.

As I researched, I stumbled across several pieces published by my organization, the Center for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR) that chronicled taxi violence over the years: and