July 29th, 2011
01:16 PM GMT
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Johannesburg, South Africa (CNN) When you see a yellow taxicab in the movies, you know you’re watching a film about New York. London is immediately identifiable by the city’s black cabs.

Here in Africa, it is the minibus taxi that defines transport on the continent. The 16-seaters are used by millions of people each day. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, the minibus taxis are a uniquely African experience.

From Lagos to Kampala to Johannesburg, Africa’s taxis are more often than not bulging with passengers as their drivers jostle through traffic.

The incessant hooting and parping are signals, which offer passengers waiting on the pavement an indication of where that taxi is going. There are no taxi ranks along well-worn routes; instead the taxis use a process of ‘stop-drop-drive-stop-drop-drive’ to deliver commuters to their destinations.

It is chaotic, organic and haphazard but it’s an industry that is an example of grassroots entrepreneurialism.

Here in South Africa, the taxi industry is a multi-million dollar business that is lauded as an entirely black-owned collective. That said, there is criticism that the wealth is not as broadly shared as some would claim, because Zulus and family dynasties mostly dominate the industry-owned taxi fleets.

By its very nature, the taxi is a collective, community experience.

Catching a ride from the Bree Street taxi rank in central Johannesburg to Cresta Centre in Randburg costs just 8 rand, which is just over a dollar.

It is a cramped and slightly wild ride as the driver straddles lanes, pulls over to drop off passengers at a moment’s notice and hoots hysterically.

Inside, squashed next to strangers, dodging traffic in a beaten old vehicle, this is the daily grind of life in Africa. Cars are too expensive and there is a barely functioning public transport system, so most people rely on the taxi industry to get them from A to B.

The government would like to regulate the drivers and bosses more, so as to bring the industry into the mainstream of the formal economy. However, the bosses and drivers I’ve spoken to say they prefer to operate on the fringes, ­ priding themselves on “self-regulation” - a complicated system of ownership, associations and codes.

Often they play fast and loose with traffic rules, but the taxi bosses say they pay their taxes and support an industry that transports 65% of South Africa’s people.

Taxi owners are now expanding their road-travel empires. The industry is “spreading its wings,” as one owner described plans to invest in a low-cost airline, which will service the poorer, more rural areas of the country. Taxi commuters will be able to buy a plane ticket at a taxi rank.

This news comes as a high-speed rail link opens between Pretoria and Johannesburg, which is a welcome relief for many car owners who spend hours in bumper-to-bumper traffic each day.

However, planes and trains aside, for most South Africans the daily trip in a wobbly, speeding minibus taxi is the only way to get home.



soundoff (29 Responses)
  1. Dorothy

    I wish to observe that an average African does not classify the minibuses as taxis. The taxi comes in the form of saloon car called," kabu kabu", in Nigeria when it bears no uniform colour, carries less number of people, of course, doesnt have regular stops for passengers to get in and out and functions within the city limits often except with special arrangement. Some taxis are called up for service when they are on special hire called " drop".It costs more to take a taxi, any taxi than it does to ride the minibus. In Nigeria the latter is a necessary evil because of the devil- may- care road manners of the operators.

    July 30, 2011 at 11:32 am |
  2. Lawrence Diamond

    Jostling through traffic is one thing I like about minibuses as a passenger because I tend to reach the destination quicker. However, most of these minibuses are old and sometimes you get squashed inside – one can hardly breath – especially in the morning and dawn. If they make money from this industry then they should maintain their minibuses.

    July 30, 2011 at 4:53 pm |
  3. Joe

    To say this is uniquely African experience is somewhat misleading, many Caribbean islands operate very similar systems of minibuses, some more experienced than others. The experiences passengers have, as described here, are also very similar. Nice article though, reminded me of my time in the islands.

    July 31, 2011 at 8:49 am |
  4. Richard

    hmm, I'm not sure I'd say "minibus taxis are a uniquely African experience" – rather, the African minibus experience is unique. Right? After all, I remember seeing & riding them in Mexico ~25 years ago, as well as throughout Latin America – and they're certainly ubiquitous throughout Asia, as well. But these little coffins on wheels, as they're often called (due to their poor driving record), are indeed a sensation in Africa. I think Nairobi is my favourite African city when it comes to minibus taxi – or "matatu" – culture. There, they have usually have an onboard TV playing a movie or else a thumping music system to keep everyone entertained (not just inside, but several "lanes" – and I use the term loosely – over!). And they're all highly personalized, with crazy/fantastic names (from tributes to musicians, former lovers, fallen revolutionaries, favourite brands, to religious slogans or just plain exclamations of bravado!). Of course, they're not just a colourful distraction (and more often than not, annoying when they cut off other drivers or drive up the wrong side of the road, etc., etc. – my least favourite part of any Jo'burg traffic commute) – they're critical, economical means for hundreds of thousands of people to get around – to/from work, the shops and across town. Riders take their lives in their hands every time they get into one – just to get on with their own lives and show up for work on time, etc. As much as I begrudgingly salute the matatu driver for his moxy, it's the riders who have my greatest admiration.

    July 31, 2011 at 1:02 pm |
  5. Concerned

    We have the same thing in Kenya, though they are called matatus here, anyways the drivers do not respect the rules as the industry is focused on 'how do i make the most money in the shortest time available' they flout all the driving rules, cause lots of traffic and are not reliable.

    Kenya can do better with a more organised bus service where the seats should be well padded, well air conditioned..., but they lack the will to reform the industry at all.

    By now the matatus should allow advertising so that the cost of fare goes down, but that does not look like its going to happen any time soon, (the leaders don't care),

    July 31, 2011 at 9:48 pm |
  6. Lorne B.

    Interesting article about taxis in South Africa, but noticed the typical south african arrogance, as they speak and write about south africa as if it were all of africa. Thank God it's not. How about a mention of some other great african cities like Addis Ababa or Nairobi? Would be nice to hear about whats going on there instead of JoBurg and Capetowne.

    August 1, 2011 at 10:08 am |
  7. Africa Is Boring

    These stories about Africa ('emerging') are boring. They better hurry up and make some real progress. Asia is interesting. The West is interesting. Africa is not. Stagnant.

    August 1, 2011 at 11:23 am |
  8. former taxi rider

    Obviously this correspondent didn't do any real research or talk to candid sources about taxis in Joburg- the "bosses" and their "self regulation" are nothing short of criminals. They charge high rates for crap service, and violently defend territory and route services resulting in "taxis wars". In 2008 there were numerous shootings at taxi ranks in townships around Joburg resulting in passengers dying because they were stuck in the cross fire.

    So perhaps CNN should revisit the taxi phenomenon in South Africa with more reliable correspondent to get a more realistic picture of the pathetic transportation options available to the majority of the population and total lack of choice they have for alternatives. Grassroots or not, its as corrupt an industry as any and needs to be brought into the formal economy sector to have better safety regulations if nothing else. So long as they have ANC members in their back pockets, its unlikely though.

    And I second Lorne B- Joburg is only ONE city in South Africa and can hardly be used to generalize the rest of African cities or even their taxi/minibus services.

    August 3, 2011 at 2:26 pm |
  9. AfricaiSnoTboring!

    It's interesting to know that in 2011 the name "Africa" is still being used as if it were a country. This is a continent!
    Firstly,I wonder why this article was written in the first place. Having traveled to many countries in different continents,I must say each has the good,bad and ugly so to speak. I love the wide access to transportation in Canada, UK and many countries in Africa (Botswana, RSA, Ghana, Zambia etc). I greatly dislike limited access to transportation in the USA!!!! Without you owning a car, then you must have to pay through your nose (especially,those drivers who are out on cheating others....yeah,dubious cab drivers in the USA-a country in North America). A few places like DC,San Francisco,New york have some good form of transportation. But all these have been classified. The rich and the highly privileged would not want the transport system in the US to be expanded due to selfish reasons same as it's affecting the debt ceiling and other problems facing the country. Let's not try to bring down any continent until you have lived in the system. I prefer the British/Canada transportation system over the USA anytime and I love the relaxed atmosphere in Africa as a continent. Africa is not about bad news. The 'IT' world can't do without targeting Africa. I feel safe in South AFrica, Botswana than I feel safe in AMerica where anyone could be shot and at the end of the day the culprit will be pronounced "not mentally stable". Enough of thinking a continent is better than the other. We all have our differences and thats the whole point! We all talk about ASIA but have you been to India? Check out the slums and not only the good places.

    August 3, 2011 at 3:57 pm |
  10. NOthing ever happens

    We were supposed to be done away with the mini vans, the double decker buses were supposed to start??? what happened to that – Kenya

    August 3, 2011 at 7:49 pm |
  11. proudly African

    @Africa is boring- too bad u think Africa is boring. U v got to live in Lagos to know that it is an extremely interesting place. We are proud of our cultural heritage and land. We don't deny the fact that we've got problems but we won't trade them for Western or Asian problems. We are also glad that u aren't one of us. We are Africans... Any day, anywhere, anytime. I am proud of the African blood that flows in my veins. Proudly Nigerian, Proudly African.

    August 4, 2011 at 7:34 pm |
  12. Ksnewuh

    This is an article that typically portrays the fallacy of composition that accompanies most reports about Africa. I have experienced what is described here in some parts of Nigeria, but to generalise it to all of Nigeria will be making a mistake, not to talk of making it 'an African experience'. IN CAMEROON, THERE ARE YELLOW TAXIS IN EVERY CITY AND THERE ARE NO OLD UGLY BUS SERVICES. IN GHANA, THERE ARE ALSO VERY COMFORTABLE TAXI'S WITH BETTER QUALITY THAN THE BLACK CABS IN LONDON. If you want to write about South Africa make that clear. To take the experience of one or two places in Africa and generalise it to the whole continent is nothing but intellectual myopia.

    August 5, 2011 at 9:03 am |
  13. Mpendulo

    Dorothy, define "average African"

    August 5, 2011 at 4:08 pm |
  14. Bond

    I'd advice Robyn Curnow to visit Cameroon, Ghana and the Arab countries in the north of Africa before daring to paint a picture of the taxi culture in Africa...South Africa's mini bus model isn't descent enough to represent, but for the fact that it is essentially one big money making machine of a cooperation serving the ballooning population....organized but not as comfortable for a get around ride as the yellow cabs in Cameroon!!!!

    August 11, 2011 at 8:25 pm |
  15. Indie

    This is entrepreneurship working at it's best in a capitalist free market. Lawmakers take note please.

    August 14, 2011 at 8:00 am |
  16. steve

    I concur with Dorothy,here in africa a taxi means the salon car type.in most cities you have some that have regular routes that they ply,they take lesser poeple and do designated drops,and then there are the special ones'where a single passenger can take and request to be dropped at a particular place.more like cabs.what you have featured here is the 16 seater ones ,in southern africa they call them "combis",in east africa they are called "matatus" which includes the minibuses.but leading in the whole of africa is kenya in this field.In kenya they come in style,lots of art on their bodies,pimped up ones,they come with very expensive interiors,sound,screens,basketball rims at the back{hoops).next time visit kenya and see this work of art.

    August 26, 2011 at 7:13 pm |
  17. K

    Why is it people who have relatively little experience living in a culture write correspondence with incorrect
    information

    August 28, 2011 at 5:29 pm |
  18. IZO

    If you want to write about Africa, try to choose a Representative sample of the continent because South Africa is not Africa. East Africa has a system along the same line but it differs from one country to another. and each has its -ve & +ve. You are welcome to experience it in kenya.

    September 2, 2011 at 3:07 pm |
  19. Andre

    I have to agree with IZO, I HATE when plebs from other countries think they understand a gingle thing about "Africa" when they hve been here once and read the papers, clueless they all are. Write about your own country you actually know something about, South-Africa is not africa, East, West and North are all diffirent. Com live here for 10 years and learn to speak at least one of the 11 official languages then you something to write about.

    September 14, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
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    September 19, 2011 at 2:02 am |
  21. Bisoo

    Could you (Robyn Curnow) please not use Africa when you're referring to South Africa. I find some of your articles and also your show on CNN a little naive, as if you don't know anything about Africa. But I would assume you being a South African, you have lived long enough on the continent to know the difference between South Africa and even Botswana. If you don't, please Africa is neither South Africa nor Nigeria nor Ghana and the vice versa. It's about time Journalists get their facts right and we will need Journalists like you from Africa to educate the west about the difference. If this cannot be done, then we need a true African to be writing about Africa and not someone who can't differentiate between Kenya and Angola. Thanks!

    September 20, 2011 at 4:52 pm |
  22. mahaaa

    Robyn Curnow has a very limited exerience about africa if not the world.It seems she has travelled very little around the world despite being a journalist.Mini bus taxis are found in countries all over the world not only in SA.Yes might be more in developping countries because they are abit cheaper.The whole of latin america from chili right up to Mexico and almost in all african countries.good article, though SA is not Africa imminiature.

    September 22, 2011 at 5:27 am |
  23. Naa Amakai

    In Ghana, West Africa, the minibus referred to as Taxis in the article are called trotro. Taxis are different, painted with diferent colours but yellow seems common to all combined with other colours. It is more expensive to ride the taxi than the trotro and that is why it is the common means of transport for the ordinary Ghanaian. Very interesting article.

    October 6, 2011 at 6:16 pm |
  24. Toyin

    I am sure the writer did not do his research well if not he won't refer to buses as taxis. In nigeria there are yellow,black and red coloured metro taxis which are in the same league as taxis in developed countries,your write up makes it look like there are no taxis in Africa just densely packed buses.Please do your research well and stop this propaganda on Africa nd its myriad of problems.solve the problems in your own house first!!

    October 18, 2011 at 10:24 am |
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