The day begins early at Cape Town’s central taxi rank. In the gloom people are laying out pyramids of citrus fruit, lugging huge kitbags of merchandise up the steps from the rail station. More than the defensive pentagon of the Castle just opposite, this open air deck seems to be the starting point of Main Road today, perhaps even the focal point of this far-flung, disjointed city, if it can be said to have one at all. Marshals are shouting out routes and the taxis are revving in their queues. The vehicles swinging round and into the eastern bays would send you out on the Atlantic seaboard roads, past gated holiday complexes and cliff top mansions. From the rows in the middle, taxis ply a route through the heart of the Cape Flats, areas plagued by 40% unemployment and chronic gang violence, while those in the western bays would take you out along the N2 highway to Khayelitsha and Mitchell’s Plain, the apartheid ‘locations’ sited a full 30 kilometres outside the city. But I make my way to number 20, where the shouting reaches an almighty crescendo:
I press R20 into the hands of the driver to let me sit up front and pick his brains. Normally these places are occupied by good-looking women, ushered there like display items by the conductor, the crier, the… what is the correct term for his vocal assistant?
‘Slide Door Operator,’ says the man at the wheel with gold teeth, adjusting the rear view mirror that has a decal over it reading SEXUAL. Many of the vehicles have warlike designs stencilled their fuselage, names tattooed on the back window in garish neon: HOT STEPPER, DREAM LOVER, MIND BLOWING BASS. The S.D.O is running a very tight ship, sucking at lollipops and officiously shuffling long distance passengers to the back. He charms large women to manoeuvre into tight spaces, apologising profusely, then simply crams in schoolchildren on the floor between seats where they hunch and flinch as the door slams. Students, servants, shoppers, businessmen, backpackers – all kinds of South Africans and even the odd intrepid tourist are herded in and asked for money, and in this way taxis constitute a rare link, or at least point of contact, between the split personalities of Cape Town – the First World city centre, a tourist and property agent paradise cradled by the mountain behind us, and the planned grids of the Flats, still illuminated in the dawn haze by massive floodlights.
When the vehicle fills up we filter out of the rank, then turn left onto Main below the flattened remains of District Six, the site of one of apartheid’s most infamous forced removals, like a scar on the slopes. Where Main Road crosses under the city bypass there is a scuffed billboard showing the Toyota Hi-Ace minibus juxtaposed with London and New York cabs, with the slogan: ‘To be a world famous taxi you have to outrun the competition.’
In fact South African minibuses have nothing to do with the quiet, insulated backseat tours of a city offered by metered cabs. They are part of the much larger transport networks that serve the rapidly urbanising metropolises of the developing world: matatus in Kenya, bakassi in Khartoum or the publicos in Puerto Rico, a ragged fleet of small buses and open back trucks stretching from Cairo to Kuala Lumpur. For the majority of the population they are a fact of life – 65% of all passenger journeys here happen in a minibus – but to economists and Inland Revenue, taxis are part of the ‘informal’ sector; there are no receipts or financial audits, and the industry is entirely cash propelled. All around me people are counting out their coins, doing the maths to work out their change, handing the money forward. I drop my fare into the cupped hand of the conductor and his arm snakes back.