A maiden voyage

The last thing a woman needs on a girls’ night out is to worry about how to get back home without dealing with a boor of a taxi driver who gets impatient when a woman needs to turn on a light to check her make-up.

The answer might be Cabs for Women, a metered service in Johannesburg dedicated to women and managed by women.

I make a booking on a Friday afternoon for a 7pm ride from my house to a nightclub in Rosebank.
When a friend points out that this is too early for Johannesburg’s nightlife, I call again to change the booking to 8.30pm. Cabs for Women founder Marion Woolf is pretty patient with me when I call a third time, for a 9pm pick-up.

Thuli Ndaba, my taxi driver for the night, negotiates the road smoothly through the suburban streets towards Rosebank. She talks about make-up, hair and miniskirts, while my friend applies last-minute touches to her own look. Ndaba looks crisply professional in her uniform—a black skirt and a white blouse—as she enthuses about how fulfilling it is to excel in a job that is male-dominated. Male customers who want to propose love or refuse to pay should think twice.

“I stand firm when they start misbehaving; I’m always ready to call the police,” Ndaba says. To ensure their safety, Cabs for Women drivers are equipped with panic buttons and their cars are under 24-hour surveillance.

The red Daihatsu Materia that Ndaba drives is clean, comfortable and feels much safer than other cabs. It’s fitted with a GPS and a fare meter.

When Ndaba drops me off outside Club Moloko we agree on a 1am pick-up. She gives me her cellphone number, in case I change my mind.

By midnight I’m ready to exit the dance floor and at about 12.25am I send Ndaba a text message asking her to fetch me earlier than planned. Eight minutes later a text message on my phone notifies me that the cab is approaching—meaning I don’t have to wait outside in the dark. The message gives me the model of the car, registration number and the driver’s name.

Cabs for Women has full passenger liability insurance, offers a 24-hour call centre, a booking service for up to two months in advance and account facilities for companies and individuals who don’t want to carry cash.

The service was launched in August last year, two years after owner Woolf returned to South Africa from London. She didn’t have a car and had to use taxis to get around. She struggled to find a comfortable and safe service. “You’re fundamentally getting in a car with a stranger. It doesn’t feel very comfortable at night.”

It’s comfort as we head back home. We chat about the man at the nightclub my friend described as “hot” and Ndaba joins in. It becomes a true ladies’ discussion, with Ndaba offering advice.

The Cabs for Women cars started out as purple—Woolf’s favourite colour—but are now painted red with Virgin Atlantic Airways stickers on the sides as part of a branding deal. Woolf sells ad space on her 10 cars for extra cash, but is still in love with the colour purple.

“I didn’t want to go pink; everyone thinks pink when they think women.”

When an advertising contract ends, the taxis are resprayed to their original colour.

Women-only cabs were first introduced in London in 2005 after a spate of attacks on female passengers, with the launch of pink cabs called Pink Ladies.

Taxis for the female market now operate in Russia, Iran, India and the United Arab Republic. Nigeria introduced lemon-yellow motorised rickshaws for women, fitted with pull-around shades to thwart prying male eyes in the streets of Kano in the country’s Muslim-dominated north. Women there had been banned from riding on motorcycle taxis, where they pressed against male drivers.

As she drops me off at home, safe and sound, Ndaba asks if I enjoyed the ride and apologises again for arriving a few minutes late when she initially collected me, saying that she struggled to find my unit in the complex.

She’s all smiles as she says goodbye and thanks me for the company. A civilised ride that my friends and I talked about for days.

Mmanaledi Mataboge

Mmanaledi Mataboge

Mmanaledi Mataboge is the Mail & Guardian's political editor. Raised in a rural village, she later studied journalism in a township where she fell in love with the medium of radio. This former radio presenter and producer previously worked as a senior politics reporter for the Mail & Guardian, and writes on politics, government, and anything that gives the disadvantaged, poor, and the oppressed a voice. Read more from Mmanaledi Mataboge

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