Johannesburg taxi drivers just might be the most caustic-tongued ride merchants in the world, especially to commuters who dare to transact in any other language but the preferred vernacular: an impeccable sort of Zulu.
Transgressions result in your humiliation, so don’t try to test them. It’s far better to learn the sign language that rules taxi routes.
I recently went on a hunt to find out where some of the hand signs originated. I got some history lessons by quizzing Ntate Masupa, an older driver on the Pretoria-Randburg route, whose fashion sense betrays his Marabastad upbringing.
He wears a pair of brown Brentwood trousers, deadbeat red Florsheim shoes with a faded navy-blue Pringle shirt. Pantsula for life!
Satisfied that I’m not some ‘hit man on the hunt for a taxi boss”, he lights a Courtley cigarette and proceeds to share the genius behind the code as we stand outside the taxi rank office.
‘Ah well, we have meetings to discuss the new routes and then we choose the sign, simple,” he says. Once the code is coined it’s the responsibility of the ‘queue marshals to inform the commuters about the new sign”.
The obvious one, of course, he says, is the universal train station route code, the choo-choo train-wheel arm movement. Other signs are ‘decided by the customers”, he says. Like the one used for the S’God’phola — Randburg route.
Turns out there were a lot of shootings in S’God’phola, an informal settlement near Fourways, in 2006, so the gun hand sign became the code for taxis going there.
It’s the same one used by Soweto commuters looking for a ride via the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, also relating to the history of gun violence in the area.
People who reside near Leeuwkop Prison have a gesture that resembles handcuffed hands as code for their route. The taxi commuter codes don’t, however, end with trying to get on to a taxi; there’s also a set of phrases governing how to ask to get off.
Phrases such as ‘after robot” or ‘short left” and ‘short right” are hurled out to signal intentions to get off at respective side-road junctions. It may sound obvious to you, but it wasn’t that plain to a man I recently shared a ride with.
Bewildered, the confused fellow had no idea how to ask the driver to stop. Then he did the unthinkable: stood up in the moving taxi with one hand atop his head, gave a shrieking whistle and howled with a foreign accent: ‘Stop! Brother! I’m dropping!”