Low flying

Downtown, 11pm. The bouncers in their tight-fitting suits are murmuring into those little mouthpieces that make them look like telesalespeople, eyes darting up and down the block. There’s a not-so-patient crowd waiting for admission, strappy high heels tapping, gold accessories flashing.
On the road, an elongated parking spot has been demarcated with brass-topped stands and velvet ropes; the red carpet awaits. And then it turns the corner: 7,7m of sleek metal, purring engine and tinted windows. There’s a little sigh from the crowd as they pretend not to stare, a fission of comment as the door eventually opens and the DJ of the moment is disgorged, record box in hand, sneakers on feet, a bottle of Pierre Jordaan bubbly imbibed. A few minutes tick by and the stretch limousine oils off again, turns carefully around corners, picks up speed. By 11.09pm it’s gone, leaving behind just a puff of exhaust fumes and the languid impression of money, fame and power.

“We have only the one limo. It’s a smart car. An eight-seater, white, with a beige leather interior. Inside you’ve got your DVD, your TV and a full bar. If you hire the limo for two hours or more, complimentary for that trip is a bottle of Jack Daniels, Famous Grouse, a bottle of vodka, a dozen beers, your soft drinks, a bottle of sparkling wine and, if people make other any specific requests, they will be provided. Guests can finish everything. And may I just add, the decanters and all the glasses are pure crystal. The driving compartment is normal standard Mercedes and at the back you’ve got your front-loader CD, so that you can choose your own music. You’ve also got the controls for air conditioning and for the panel between the driver and the passengers. This panel is not see-through, no, so guests can have complete privacy. The battery in the limo only lasts about six to seven months because of all the appliances and lights, so it has to be changed regularly. The car is called LuxCat WP, that’s on the registration plate. Nicknames? I call it ‘my baby’.”

René Cheston Kenny (36) pauses for breath. He’s drinking sparkling water with lemon and talking about driving what is probably the most glamorous limousine in Cape Town. He caters to high flyers, CEOs and foreign business people with a taste for comfort and deep, deep pockets. Hiring LuxCat will set you back R1 000 for the first hour, R350 for each additional 60 minutes — and there are extra charges for late-night cruising and long-distance travel. Sitting inside the car, there is that rather delightful smell of leather seats, fine booze and perfume. But for all the finery, Kenny is firmly down-to-earth, charmingly eloquent about the perks of the job and exceptionally diplomatic about any wickedness perpetrated by loaded young heirs on a night on the town.

“I love driving,” he says. “After an interview with the owner of the limo company on a Thursday, I had my first assignment the next day. I thought the limo was going to be a difficult thing to drive but you just have to take the corners a bit wider. It’s got power steering, that’s the important thing. To enjoy this job, you need to be a people’s person, and understand your customers’ needs. Patience is good too; people hire the limo for the evening and go and have dinner and you have to wait for them. And you need to be flexible, because you get different kinds of people, the easy-going ones and the ones … well, most are easy-going, but they have different habits. There are no rules for not engaging with the passengers.”

There are few rules in the South African limousine industry. In London, where limos are thick on the streets and fleets of the vehicles wait outside movie premieres every night, newspapers advertise chauffeur courses and registered drivers come complete with peaked cap and white gloves. But limos are about as new as democracy in South Africa, and the stuffier aspects of the job do not seem to have been imported. “There’s no exact uniform,” Kenny says. “Just a suit and a tie. No cap or gloves, although, if people requested them, we could organise some. I’d imagine they’d be uncomfortable to wear.”

Any South African with a driver’s licence can set themselves up as a chauffeur. The only red-tape is the need for public liability cover on the vehicle and a professional driver’s permit, which can be obtained from the traffic department. Billy Russell, manager of Absolut Limousines in Johannesburg, says the company provides its chauffeurs with 30 hours of in-house training, dealing with etiquette and safety. But smaller businesses set their own rules for behaviour. “Chauffeurs’ school?” says Kenny. “No, I’ve never heard of that in South Africa. But I’ve been on an advanced driving course that teaches you to improve your driving skills and to do anti-hijacking manoeuvres and all that.”

The amount of interaction with passengers is up to the driver. Kenny likes talking to people, to him, it’s part of the job. “Weddings are great,” he says. “I generally try to put the bride at ease, wish her well for walking up the aisle and the future. But hen parties stand out! I love doing hen parties. I never knew what females talk about, now I know all the secrets. The younger women in their mid-20s, phew. Girls showing their tattoos to each other other, when I wasn’t supposed to look! But you must remain focused on the road. What they do at the back is their business. You hear what they say, but you are focused on the road, because you are there to keep them safe. Although I haven’t had people who’ve gone kinky, not that I know of. There are people who close the window and the sound is muffled, but you don’t hear the moans and groans.” And the most popular tunes in LuxCat WP? “We’ve got the Ibiza Summer Anthems 2003. People love that.”

Faik (31) and Shanaas Allie (30) have two limousines parked in the drive of their home in Ottery, Cape Town, headquarters of Royal Limousine Services. One is black, one is white. Both are homemade, using the bodies of two Mercedes apiece. Inside, they have soft seating for six people and a cabinet boasting an ice bucket and glasses. Fairy lights in plastic tubing illuminate the interior.

“A few years ago, I was unemployed,” says Faik Allie. “And seeing that things were changing in the country we thought, let’s do something different. So we took a second bond on the house. And we had the first limo made. The guy told us it would take a few months, but it took a whole year. We do weddings, funerals, matric dances. The bar is included in the price; we offer sparkling grape juice. You see, often there are children and they can join in. On other occasions, we tell people they can bring their bubbly along. There’s also nice sound.

Sometimes people rent it out for an hour and so I haven’t put a TV in, because you won’t get much time to watch it in an hour. But what I am thinking of putting in is a karaoke system. The best thing is when there are four or five or six people in the car. When there are just two, and they’re not talking, that’s difficult. Sometimes I try and crack a joke. I drove a couple once who were very nervous, tense. So we went past Camps Bay and I told the lady, ‘Now get out, take your husband and walk down the beach and I’ll pick you up down there.’ It just broke that tension. There are people who think ja, you’re just the driver. But I always introduce myself. Sometimes people find my name difficult to pronounce and I’ll tell them, ‘Just call me James.’ Then it’s James do this, James do that.” And the most popular tunes? “Rave music, I suppose. People would hardly go for slow jazz because they’re out to enjoy themselves in the car.”

As Kenny says, people don’t hire a limo for anonymity. They want to be seen living it up in style and comfort. They want a quick flush of envy to prickle those who see them pass. “Most people want to be taken to a place where there’s a lot of movement, so they can be seen in the limo. It turns a lot of heads,” he says. “You see people staring. You also get a lot of people coming up to ask to look inside. I always let them have a peep.” And while Faik Allie does more community-based events than celebrity driving (although he did drive Aden Thomas, a P4 Radio host, to the Arabella in Hermanus the other day), he agrees that part of the joy of a limo ride is being seen. “Once a mother rented me to drive her daughter and her friends to school,” he says. “There were about six of them and they were screaming. I opened the sunroof and they were outside, hanging off the car, the music was blasting and everyone was singing, they loved that. The public sometimes stop me along the road and comment, like, ‘Duidelik!’ Or they ask who’s inside. I always thell them it’s Madiba.”

Selling a ride in a limo is selling luxury, so there is not much of a margin for error. Faik Allie, as an owner-driver, says he stresses about anything going wrong with the car while on the road. Kenny has had bad luck. “One evening I had to drive a guy to the airport to collect his father,” he remembers. “The son had crashed his father’s car while his dad was away on a business trip. And on the way, we had a puncture. I changed the wheel, but I put the wrong nuts back on and this jammed the brakes. We arranged for a taxi to collect the father at the airport, but the limo couldn’t be towed, obviously, so it had to go on a flatbed truck. And the next day I got a call to say where was the TV, DVD, glasses and decanters … The owner wasn’t impressed.”

But when things go right, the rewards are good. “One evening I drove a couple for their fifth anniversary,” says Kenny. “I picked them up in Constantia and took them to the Waterfront for dinner. Later we went to Grand West Casino, where he invited me to join them inside. He gave me money and said I must go with his wife, who was playing roulette, while he went to the machines. He’d given me R300 and I thought it was my tip and didn’t play. So when he came back, he asked why I wasn’t playing. So I played. And lost. He comes back and gives me another R300. And with that I won R1 800! Two very nice people … he even gave me another R200 tip at the end of the assignment.”

So the money is good, not only for limo owners, but the drivers too. Right now there are about 10 companies offering limo services in Cape Town, 20 in Jo’burg and a couple in Durban. And they are hired for all occasions, from transporting VIPs to matric dances. While jetting around the United Kingdom or the United States, you’d be able to hire a limo with added extras such as lap-dancers or stripteasers, but here at home extras don’t usually go further than a personalised registration plate, a plate of snacks — or balloons.

“People are only just getting used to limos now, the market is opening up,” says Shanaas Allie. “A lady told us that in London people don’t want to be caught drinking and driving, so they pay someone to drive them and they don’t have to worry about anything else. It’s convenient. I hope this will catch on. Like people going to a dinner party and then they don’t have to drive themselves home. A limo is almost like a plane trip: the pilot’s in the front, you’re just relaxing and enjoying the company. We try to adhere to what people want, we’ll do almost anything to make people happy. Except provide liquor. We won’t do that, we’re Muslim. You’ve got to stay who you are.”

Kenny claims that being around so much luxury hasn’t changed him. “It gives you pride to drive a limo,” he says, “but I’m still the same person. Middle-class. I live a comfortable life and with the extras I make from the limo, I get a chance to spoil my wife. I’m not one for flashing money around, but for the passengers, you know, it’s their money and they can enjoy it. I think it’s wrong to envy people who hire a limo.”

In Ottery, there is one person who envies Faik Allie a great deal. Every other day, five-year-old Zakaria goes to Shanaas Allie and tells her, “Mommy? You must get me a suit, hey, a black suit. When I grow up I wanna be a limo driver.”

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