July 29th, 2011
01:16 PM GMT
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.
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