/ 7 May 2008

Making inroads in a man’s world

It’s 6am and it’s already busy at the Bree Street taxi rank. Taxis are honking their horns, pavement entrepreneurs are hawking their goods and commuters are forming lines, waiting for their taxis. It may be early for some, but Zodwa Khumalo, one of only a handful of women taxi drivers, started her day at 3am.

Sitting behind the wheel of her aged Toyota minibus, the 32-year-old mother of three looks tired. More than anything else, working as a minibus taxi driver means putting in long hours.

Khumalo got into the taxi business when she was 17 and still at school. Her son was seven months old and she started washing cars at the rank to make ends meet. After ten years of washing taxis she decided to become a taxi driver.

“I just wanted to have a job and decided to get my driving licence,” she told the Mail & Guardian Online.

Khumalo has now been driving the route between Bree Street and Honeydew in the northern suburbs for five years.

Khumalo wakes up at 2.45am, washes, dresses and leaves her home in Emdeni, Soweto, to … catch a taxi. She’s dropped at the Bree Street rank and by 6am she’s on the road. She works seven days a week and often only arrives home after 8pm.

The taxi industry in Johannesburg is incredibly competitive. There are thousands of drivers on the roads and the quicker you can drop your passengers and get back to the rank for more customers, the better.

“I am tough too. I drive hard and I am rough sometimes,” she says.

She doesn’t have special relationships with the other female drivers. “I am used to being around men. I just greet [the woman drivers] and pass.”

An estimated 2% of taxi drivers are women.

“Women are sensitive, and that wouldn’t be a good thing as a taxi driver … There could be more women, but it’s not the fault of men, but of women being scared.”

Khumalo also says she feels vulnerable at times.

“Sometimes I become scared. If maybe there is only one man [passenger] left, I ask another taxi to take him for me.”

What about the incident at the Noord Street rank when a young woman was abused by taxi drivers because she was wearing a miniskirt?

“Well, I think she should have dressed appropriately … I think that’s because I am Zulu. [As a Zulu] you are not allowed to walk like that as a woman.

“You know, in a taxi you have to bend over if you want to go out, for example, and then people will see your ass … But, they [taxi drivers] were supposed to swear at her, but they should have left her and not touched her.”

Khumalo prefers to have male passengers: “I always have problems with women. Female passengers often are dating the owners [of the taxis]. If they don’t like it, they go and report to the owners.

“A lot of passengers have an attitude, especially the Soweto people.”

‘In three months, I have about two days off’

Pointing to the new, larger minibus taxis, Khumalo says: “People become picky. They choose their own taxis. I have place for 15 people, but I put in 18. But you have to tell them, because some people don’t want to sit with four [passengers on the same set of seats].”

What does she think about the government’s taxi-recapitalisation project, which aims to create a safer minibus industry?

“I think a lot of people are going to lose their jobs, but for the safety it’s better, because they [the new taxis] have seatbelts.”

Khumalo says if she needs to make an emergency stop in the taxi she is driving at present “I will definitely have an accident. People will fall over from the back.”

However, in her five years on the road, Khumalo has only had one accident.

“I was on the phone and the traffic lights were not working, but I did not realise that.” She bumped into another car, but nobody was injured.

“[As a taxi driver] you need to have fast reflexes and be able to manoeuvre, because people in cars don’t want you to overtake them, because they know that if you let one taxi go, they will all go …”

Khumalo pays her boss R500 a day and has to pay for her own petrol. Anything that’s left over, is hers. She earns about R500 a week.

Khumalo wants out of the business, in part, because of the rising fuel costs.

“Now the petrol is so expensive, it’s not that much money anymore.”

Khumalo also says the long hours mean she is not able to spend much time with her family.

Khumalo’s three children are aged 15, five and four months. Her youngest child stays with her sister in Randfontein during the week, and over the weekend her sister comes to her house in Emdeni. During the week her eldest son takes care of his brother.

“On Sunday, I take my sons with me in the taxi, because it’s not that busy then. But I wake up at the same time, because there is also a lot of surplus money [to be made].”

“In three months, I have about two days off.

“The old one doesn’t mind, he knows that it is necessary to have nice sneakers. But the younger one wants to spend time with me all the time.”

“My kids never have a cooked meal, they live on bread and takeaways, because I have never time to cook.”

Khumalo has now left the taxi business and is driving a truck.