“One day, when you get your own car, you will understand all this rage” is something I’ve heard from almost all my friends when they’re busy swearing and yelling at people sharing the road.
It’s a familiar phenomenon in South Africa. I’ve seen some of my sweetest friends turn into monsters on the road due to their lack of communication with other drivers. Driving is a lot like dancing I suppose — a misstep means stepping on other people’s toes — except consequences in cars don’t only include sore toes.
I’m not a passive passenger: I pay attention to the road, to road signs, to other drivers and to the driver inside the car. When I’m in a car and the driver decides to drive the South African way, which involves flirting with the rules of the road — be it overtaking on a corner (yes, I have seen someone do this), attempting to text and drive, driving above the speed limit — I always call people out. Which, when I am in the front seat, is often met with a “do you want to sit at the back?” as though that’s going to shut my eyes and mouth to bad driving.
“Why are you overtaking when you didn’t even indicate to alert other drivers that you are turning?” sounds like having a metro police officer in your car. According to Simone Jooste Verhoog, whose post about South African drivers went viral, our drivers like their road rules quite flexible and prefer to not indicate because “it gives away your next move” and apparently no one wants that. I will continue to be the metro cop in the car and encourage people to speak up to bad driving when they see it. The thing is, I might not even get the chance to say, “I told you so.”
I have lived in Pretoria, Joburg, Cape Town and Grahamstown and enjoyed the slow pace of Makhanda, noticed the non-existence of the traffic department on the Cape Town roads and Pretorian drivers whose worst fear is to drive in the hostile city of Joburg. In Pretoria, you are considered a fully qualified driver if you’ve ever driven a car in Johannesburg — no lies. In Makhanda, seeing anything more than four cars at an intersection is enough to cause a meltdown.
I am especially fond of cities that make it as easy as possible for me to walk around. This requires reliable public transport. The train system in Cape Town is unreliable; you never know whether the train is coming or not, and if it is, it is almost always unclear as to when it will arrive. This is profoundly unfortunate, because the train system has the potential and reach to serve a wide variety of Capetonians.
Even though trains are unreliable, I prefer them to taxis, because Cape Town taxi drivers have mastered the art of turning a taxi into something of a rollercoaster ride. If you have a need for speed, it’s something you should definitely look into. With the boring and steady cho-cho of the train, I have found myself thoroughly immersed in an easy amble to the train station, and consuming copious amounts of Virginia Woolf essays in the moving train, all without having to deal with any road rage.
There’s a rumour among drivers that BMW drivers are douchebags, I am tempted to support this because I think it might explain the failure that was my previous relationship. But if anyone is the reigning douchebag of the road at the moment it would have to be a lot of meter taxi drivers in the South African metropolitan cities for their antagonism towards mobile application-based drivers. At the heart of this contention are female drivers, who are now having to overcome stereotypes of women being unable to drive, in addition to the daily violence that they are subjected to. I’ve taken five Taxify rides in my life by women and I’m always curious about their experiences as women operating in an industry that’s so male-dominated.
I spoke to Mavis Nhlapo, who told me that she was once attacked in Pretoria as a result of a conflict with meter taxi drivers. Another female driver once mentioned that for the longest time she had trips cancelled and she didn’t know why until a man told her that he would never be driven by a woman. He always cancelled trips if the driver was a woman and she should count her blessings, because on that particular day he was stranded by a flat battery. She shared stories of male customers who tried flirting with her. Some said they could just walk out of the car without making payment, and there’s nothing she can do about it. All these incidents reveal the deeply embedded stereotypes that women are out of place behind a steering wheel.
Saudi Arabia announced last year that women are now legally allowed to drive; it seems preposterous to imagine that women were jailed and lost their jobs for driving. This declaration was made last year and only became effective as of last month.
As a travel journalist — one who is scared of driving and will go to extreme measures to use public transport — I recognise that sitting behind a steering wheel is about taking responsibility of transporting lives from point A to point B with the hope that your skills and other collaboration with other drivers will ensure that everyone does “arrive alive”. Taking the wheel is a big decision, but many drivers don’t take it seriously enough.