Random Notes from South Africa

The bus system in Johannesburg isn't very robust, but what they do have is what they call Shared Taxi's.

Shared taxis are a really crazy, but wonderful idea. There are these mini-vans that go all over Johannesburg and it's kind of a hop-on, hop-off type thing. You pay this small amount of money and it takes you where you need to go. Great, right?

What's not so great is that the shared taxi business puts itself above the law. They don't necessarily have to follow any of the street laws that cars have to follow. They stop ON FREEWAYS or on busy streets...anywhere they find someone who needs a ride. You don't often have much warning that they are about to stop either-it just happens. And they honk a TON.

The people who don't use them are not fond of them, and for good reason. They just do their own thing and get away with it. For example, you could have four cars waiting to turn right. The shared taxi will drive around the four cars and weave their way to the front so they can go first. They drive like they are late for little league and they are quick to stop whenever. The great thing about the shared taxis though are that they aer a great resource for the poor folks to get from one area to another for WAY cheap.

Something really interesting about the shared taxi system - they don't have any specific routes or stops. They will pick you up in any location, at any time. You simply stand on the side of the road and you hold your hand out. There are different hand signals to indicate where you are going. If the van has room (they always make room) and if they are going that way, it will stop and pick you up. I asked a local how someone would know the correct hand signal and he explained it this way - If you are poor in Johannesburg, you grow up in a certain neighborhood. You know everyone in that neighborhood. You grow up, you likely stay at home or you move into a location in the same neighborhood. Everyone knows everyone. In the states, we might not talk to our neighbors, but in Joburg, everyone knows each other. So if you are going to go somewhere across town, someone you know will know you are going there and they will tell you what hand signal to use to get there via shared taxi. It's interesting to see people standing all over town just holding out a few fingers pointed up, or just one finger pointed down, maybe four pointed to the side.

KFC is huge here. They have them all over it seems. People love KFC!  McDonalds is around, but isn't very popular. Our tour guide last Sunday said this: black people really like chicken. I cringed a bit when he said it, as we're so ingrained to be sensitive to saying stereotypes that could be construed as offensive, but he was just saying what he knows to be true. To be clear-I don't in any way think he's racist in saying that, especially having spent the day with him and if you listen to the way he talks, you would think he was black himself. He had such heart-felt words all day about the inequality towards blacks, the unfairness of the laws, etc.

FYI - there is not ONE Starbucks in Johannesburg. Not even one!!! It's actually a bit refreshing. They did have a Starbucks here during the Olympics in 2010, but as soon as the Olympics were over, Starbucks closed up and moved out. My colleague said that it's just not feasible for Starbucks to be here, as nobody can afford to pay their prices.

Traffic signals in South Africa (or at least in Johannesburg) are called "robots." Nobody knows why. The word in the Afrikaan language doesn't sound like it and it translates directly to mean signal light, so it's just an odd cultural thing that's been around...but nobody I've talked to seems to know why. It's funny to hear them called that-this morning our driver said, "sorry for the delay, the robots were not working on most of the street."

Hard to tell in the picture of this robot, but the don't walk symbol is a man with his legs apart. The walk symbol is legs open, as if walking.


  1. I like that idea of shared taxis--less specific than a bus route and the probably alleviate a lot of traffic congestion.

  1. Denis said...:

    robot, robots - besides the standard meaning, in South Africa this is also used for traffic lights. The etymology of the word derives from a description of early traffic lights as robot policemen, which then got truncated with time


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