My experiences with taxis in South Africa and makombi in Harare

In South Africa, it’s called a Taxi and in Zimbabwe it’s called a Kombi. Minibuses used as public transport in these countries are a popular way of getting around and from my experiences, they are awesome and reliable (sometimes). On my past travels, I have had the pleasure of being in Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town taxis, plus a kombi in Harare. With each city comes a different style to this form of public transport and I gotta say, it’s weird but exciting.

Harare

I gotta start with my home city, and to be honest, the public transport here has seen better days. Referred to as Kombi/ET/Emergency Taxi/Commuter Omnibus (only Puff Daddy has more names), these minibuses have seen a civil war and have survived. Most of them are far from roadworthy but somehow they operate as if they just left the manufacturer. They are small and still stuck in 2000, weathered and struggling to accommodate the increase in size of people. Or maybe I have just gotten fatter? Doubt it! But nonetheless, they operate and I cannot complain. A trip from where I live to the CBD is ZAR5 or 50c (Bond Coin – coins used in Zimbabwe) or USD$1 during “peak hours”. I’m still yet to travel during these “peak times”.

There are some interesting things about being in a civil war survivor, for instance I can use three different currencies to pay for my trip; The South African Rand, the US Dollar or the Zimbabwean Bond Coin. All are accepted! This system is foreign to me but oddly enough, it works. The music is enlightening but I’m not a fan of “Zim dancehall”, which is extremely popular in Zimbabwe. So I am that weird guy in a Kombi that is looking around and smiling. The joys of being a tourist in my own city.

Meet the Kombi Family
Meet the Kombi Family

Johannesburg (JHB)

The taxi system in this city is complicated. A guide is required because destinations are determined by hand signals. That’s how massive this city is. When you are on the side of the road and a taxi is coming towards you, you have to indicate where you want to go; the CBD or local. I could never travel around JHB by myself, and I like galavanting by myself. I remember my singular experience of going on a taxi in 2010. My cousins and I wanted to go to the nearest mall, so we ventured to the road where the taxis frequent. That’s when I saw it, the signal! I couldn’t believe what I was witnessing. My cousin pointed his forefinger downwards and to my surprise, the taxi drove past. Down means local and up means town. Or is it the other way around? Stunned by what I just saw, I knew immediately that my ventures in JHB would lead me to getting lost and I have a “I am lost and truly f****d” face, and there’s nothing cute about it.

Not only is everything far and the need to understand the taxi system crucial, the taxis are simple. Straight out of the factory and onto the road. The drivers are pretty friendly but I guess when you’re driving strangers around for many hours in a day, you gotta be friendly. The one driver sang along to the music that was playing. Not the greatest sound I’ve ever heard but it was his vehicle. All I could do was hum with him and make him feel like a star. Still fun though.

Durban

The taxis here are the definition of cool. A lot of them have a custom job and without fail, a sound system that could shatter the windows of all the nearby cars. How am I in a club at 8am on a Tuesday? Forget coffee, the taxis in this city will wake you up just by getting into them. They are AWESOME! Though over the top with the sound system but they are decked up. At the time, music by Lil Jon was extremely popular. And if you know Lil Jon’s music, he says nothing, shouts constantly and there’s only bass. The sub woofer (occasionally two) is placed under the back seat and when Lil Jon comes on, just know your rear will be gyrating to the bass line. You may not enjoy the music but I can tell you, your body will move in ways it never has before.

By far the most entertaining mode of public transport in Africa. Imagine being in a Durban taxi on a Friday afternoon going home after a long week. You will not be in the mood to go anywhere but one trip on that taxi and you will find yourself on Monday morning with a negative balance.

I'm convinced Durban taxis can start your weekend well. #NoRegrets
I’m convinced Durban taxis can start your weekend well. #NoRegrets

Cape Town

“WWWWWYYYYYYYYYYNNNNNNNNNNNNBBBBBBBBBEEEEEEEEEGGGGGGGGGGG! MOWBRAY, CLAREMONT, WWWWWWWWWYYYYYYYYYYYYYYNNNNNNNNNNNNNNBBBBBBBBBBBBBBEEEEEEEEGGGGGGGGGGGG!” Get this, the destination is Wynberg but they always shout Wynbeg. How did “-berg” become “-beg”? The people make the taxis in this city. Cape Town, a city that I will forever be in love with, has the most vibrant people operating the taxis. I have seen these guys wait for people that are 150m away, carry people’s groceries and not to forget, drive like Lewis Hamilton through the streets of Cape Town. There’s never a dull moment in a Cape Town taxi. There have been arguments over R1 change, the driver justifying the increase in price due to “overtime”, and I once watched cartoons on one of my trips.

A really awesome memory I have is when a couple of friends and I were coming from Mzoli’s Place in Gugulethu. A really amazing place and a MUST-DO when you’re in Cape Town. I love that place! We shared a taxi with American students from Gugulethu to Rondebosch. The driver cranked up his house music and the passengers came alive. People stood up and with the little space they had, they bust a move, sang along and occasionally chanted “DRIVER! DRIVER! DRIVER!” in appreciation. His taxi went from public transport to a party bus in an instant, and we all loved it. What a champion!

On a chilly, winter Saturday I went to look for penguins (love those birds), and the train had to stop along the way because of maintenance on the tracks. So we had to disembark and take the provided transport to Simonstown. It turns out I hopped onto the wrong provided transport and ended up in a township. This is what happens when you are well accustomed to taxis. It was quite the experience. Quite! My “I am lost and truly f****d” face surfaced and I had no clue of what to do. I did get to see the extent of the fire that raged across Cape Town in March, 2015. In my unfortunate circumstance, J Cole’s words “There’s beauty in the struggle” echoed through my head. It was a sad sight but at the same time, it was beautiful. I was lost in the sight. I have to commend the firefighters for their efforts. Back to my…. adventure, I just sat in the taxi and hoped for the best. Each turn took me deeper into the township and further away from the penguins. Finally it was the driver, my facial expression and myself! Say what you want about South Africans, they are helpful people and very accommodating. I guess my facial expression explained my situation for me, which they laughed at.

You cannot ignore safety. That I understand and luckily for me, I’ve only had positive experiences in these vehicles. I have heard stories of people’s experiences and they are all scary. It sucks to hear them and to see the news. Considered menaces to the road, a taxi/kombi is a way of life to people, and as a tourist, try going on a taxi. I guarantee that it will be an adventure, regardless of the city you are in. In Harare, you have three choices of currency to use, don’t forget to use the correct hand signals in Johannesburg, in Durban your body will gyrate with the bass line, and prepare for a show in Cape Town.

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