The article below is the final piece of Mike Alfred's series on Joburg personalities from the first decade of the 21st century. Click here to view Kathy Munro's fantastic introduction and here to view the series index. The stories were written in 2005/6.
I thought that no book about Johannesburg citizens would be quite authentic without a profile of a kombi taxi driver. They loom large in our driverly consciousness. They often, too often, conjure dark and violent thoughts and spontaneous curses. They contribute to a multi billion rand industry, breeding ground for new capitalists; an industry without which, millions of daily commuters would be helplessly handicapped.
Have you ever walked into a taxi rank with the intention of asking a driver to give his story? Suspicious stares greet you. Suddenly everybody becomes deaf and you become invisible. Silence and turned backs are your lot. This freezing happened several times. It would have been be easier of course, if I could speak Zulu or another African language. Later, when I’ve made a few friends, I’m told I look like a cop, or someone from SARS. Me? Goodness! So, I’m coming close to the end of the book with no taxi driver in view. I ask my charlady for help. She speaks to someone out there but somehow we fail to make contact. Then I’m told about a long distance taxi driver, but I wish to speak to an urban driver, preferably on the Soweto run. I begin to feel desperate. One day I recount my problem to the owner of my neighbourhood filling station. No problem! He knows not only taxi drivers, but taxi owners, one of whom he immediately phones and hands the phone to me saying, ‘Sipho.’
It turns out that Sipho Makhubu’s business is nearby. He’s very friendly and we agree to meet later in the morning. I turn up at his used car lot where I meet his friendly partner, Shaun, and I wait. Sipho doesn’t pitch. Here we go again, I think. Eventually I leave my card and drive away, very disappointed. Later in the afternoon, an apologetic Sipho phones me from the aforementioned filling station and we arrange to meet the following day. This time, to my intense relief, he‘s there for our appointment. He’s friendly, relaxed, soft spoken, articulate, and agrees to introduce me to the men who drive his taxis. He tells me about himself. In the telling I gather that he has a way with money and an inclination to seize opportunities. He tells me he’s only the second black dealer on Jules St. He’s spearheading change.
Sipho Makhubu, now 43, was born and grew up in Soweto. As a youngster, because his primary school was adjacent to a high school, he ‘joined’ the ’76 marches but admits that he didn’t quite know what it was all about. He tells me that he’s distantly related to the man carrying the dead Hector Pietersen in the famous photo. He matriculated and then qualified as a high school teacher at the Vaal Teacher’s Training College. He taught biology at Emdeni High School for eighteen years and became head of department. By obtaining donations, including gifts from his Bafana Bafana friends, he helped feed the poorest kids at the school. He took the rowdies to ‘Sun City,’ local slang for Diepkloof Prison, as an object lesson, and he attempted to teach his children to use money wisely.
When the schoolmaster’s routine grew too much and the desire to do something more adventurous became overpowering, he applied his own money principles. He started his business life by purchasing a bargain Nissan Kombi from a friend. He became a contract driver for a group of employees who travelled to and from Germiston each day. It was a convenient second occupation he tells me, because he was able to collect and deliver his passengers at times which didn’t interfere with his teaching duties. He saved money. The experience allowed him to recognize the potential of the taxi industry. He moved from Soweto to live in Naturena. There, his white neighbour, who realized that he was part of a new wave, trained him to sell houses to black folks on the way up. He began to make good money and soon he realized he’d rather run a taxi business than teach. Now he owns three taxis operating between Faraday St, in centre city and Rockville on the Western edge of Soweto. And he’s recently become a partner with a friend, in the small, second hand car business where we meet. Just before the car venture, he ran a mobile food kitchen. I realize that I’m talking to a blossoming entrepreneur. I wonder how significant it is that he’s well educated and that he didn’t emerge from grinding poverty.
Sipho who is gentle and does not try to impress either in manner or appearances, has done well. In 2005 he bought two new kombis for his taxi business, paying a cash deposit of R80 000 each. They’ve made a difference for his drivers, he tells me; they’re motivated to keep them gleaming, they report the slightest scratch. Sipho informs me that a good sound system is a necessity for keeping taxi drivers happy. He chose drivers recommended by the taxi association to which he belongs. He contracts his drivers to give him four hundred rand per day. Anything extra, he tells me, they can keep. Later I do a calculation that suggests his taxi business grosses round about half a million rand a year. I ask when he’ll introduce me to his drivers. Sure, next Tuesday. I observe that Jules St is renowned for moving stolen vehicles. He tells me that before they buy a vehicle they check the register at Brixton Police Station. I stop asking questions and we talk a little about our shared world. He wants to know if I’ve been to Soweto? He was in London recently where he found himself in a group with an American, a Brazilian and a white Johannesburger. ‘Guess who hadn’t visited Soweto?’ Sipho asks, chuckling.
I collect Sipho one mid morning and he navigates me to a large taxi rank, housing I guess, several hundred parked vehicles on a vacant lot near Faraday St. His men are sitting in a taxi waiting for us. One is finishing a whole roast chicken, the carcass of which he shoves into a packet and sets aside. He wipes his fingers and gives me an enormous handshake. He smiles with a mouth not fully appointed with teeth. He’s a very large man and I note the scars on his head, face and forearms but he quickly puts me at ease. He’s a man I’d rather like on my side. A younger man shakes my hand for so long that I begin to despair him letting go. A third man with noticeably bloodshot eyes also makes me welcome. Sipho sits with us but says very little. I give my ‘shpiel’ and then ask, ‘So why are you taxi drivers?’ Scarred Mandla Tshabalala says, ‘No option. I’ve been out of work for a long time. I have to feed my family.’ The young man, Tula Sizwe, hasn’t been driving long, just a few months. He’s so obviously hurt and aggrieved, I get the feeling he really doesn’t want to be doing this work. He tells me he wanted a career in the security world but he was exploited unmercifully in one firm and fired unjustly from another. His attempts at legal redress have failed.
The man with bloodshot eyes, soft spoken, somewhat tired looking and with a face suffused with life’s experience, whose name is Madoda Tshabalala, [he and Mandla are cousins] tells me he’s been driving a taxi for twenty years and he’s seen it all. I ask Madoda whether he’ll tell me his story. He agrees and I arrange to see him several days hence. Then we all discuss hours of work when I learn that these men rise at four in the morning to be driving passengers sometimes from five. They try to make four trips before the tide slackens at nine. Sure they drive back fast! They rest up in the taxi rank during the day and start again at four, attempting to complete four trips from town before calling it quits. No, no benefits, they tell me, no insurance, no medical, no pension! As Sipho and I walk away he says about Madoda my prospective interviewee, ‘He’s been driving a taxi for twenty years and he hasn’t a thing to show for it.’ On reflection I realise he’s saying as much about himself as the other.
A day or two later, I walk into the taxi rank seeking Madoda Tshabalala. A group of official looking men checking returning taxis ask me my business? I tell them. No, Madoda hasn’t come in yet. I wander among the taxis. I get the stares, some neutral, some hostile; a few smiles. I stand around. A taxi driven by what appears to be a teenager comes to a stop before the checkers. A bruiser appears. He opens the driver’s door hauls the youngster out and shoves him aside. The bruiser scratches under the vehicle’s dashboard. He emerges with a tray of coins. The driver protests. He’s ignored. He protests again. He’s threatened. The coins disappear and the bruiser shoves him back into the taxi. He drives off looking like thunder. Almost immediately, a passerby is screeched at by a woman I take to be a cleaner. Men grab him and upend him. They search his underpants, then they take off his shoes and socks. All this happens accompanied by great good humour; everybody’s laughing. I gather from the action the woman has not been paid. With the contents of the underpants and the socks, she’s paid. I smile at them they smile at me.
I wander fruitlessly around. A young man sitting in the back of a kombi asks if he can help? I tell him what I’m doing there with more hand waving than I normally employ in conversation. He remarks that I seem anxious. Is it that obvious? What the hell, I agree. He tells me that it’s the same when a black man walks through a white area, everybody stares at him. We smile at one another. He invites me to sit inside the Kombi and relax. I’m about to accept when Madoda appears. His eyes are clear and he’s well turned out in a smart checked shirt and well ironed trousers. We sit in his taxi and after exchanging pleasantries I switch on the tape recorder. He tells me:
‘I was born here in Soweto. My mother she’s a Xhosa, she was born in the Eastern Cape and my father was born in Mocambique. He came here in South Africa round nineteen twenty sort of thing, nineteen twenty one. In 1971 my father took me to Mocambique. I stayed there with my aunt up to 1978. I was studying there. I learnt Portuguese. Then I came back and passed matric. In 1982, my mother passed away and I went to live with my father. I had some part time jobs, but after a while I couldn’t keep those part time jobs. I decided to become a taxi driver. After that I started here [pointing to the taxi rank], washing taxis. I earned four, five rand a wash. I took that money, put it safe, so I could organize a driver’s license. Then I started to drive a taxi in ’86. By ’92 I had a family. So now there’s nothing else I can do. I tried to find other work but I had to stay with this to earn money to support the family. I also send money to my father who’s living now in Mocambique.
‘My life as a taxi driver? [He hesitates, searching for the right words.] Well, it’s a normal life. But I’d like to find a job. I don’t have a best job, any kind of job will be good. Truly speaking, I’ve been long to this work, I’m s. . . I’m tired. But what can I do? If I didn’t have a family I’d have quit this job long ago. I bought a house in Protea Glen. I pay more than one thousand, five hundred a month. I’d like to get a job with benefits. Here, the money I’m earning, it’s just hand-to-mouth. Sometimes I don’t touch my money for three weeks. I keep it to pay the bond. And my son, he’s in grade five, he must be educated.
‘Oh yes I’ve been in trouble, these taxi wars, three or four times. When the other taxi association is fighting with your association you must do every thing in your power to survive. If you are picking passengers on their route they’ll kill you! Even without passengers they’ll shoot you.’ Madoda points to his association sticker on the windshield. ‘If they see the wrong stickers, it means you are a target. They don’t warn you, they don’t beat you up, they shoot you, finished. Once they shot at me. It was in ‘87. I see them coming. I try to run away. The minute that I saw them coming I parked the car, I went out of the car and I started running. That’s when they started shooting. One bullet hit me here [pointing to his thigh] I went to hospital but it wasn’t so bad.
I steer the talk towards taxi bosses. It’s then that I learn that Sipho is not Madoda’s boss. He was sitting with Mandla, his cousin, in Mandla’s taxi when Sipho and I arrived. I’m a bit thrown but then realise it really doesn’t matter, I’m interviewing the man I chose. Intensely curious, and going off at a tangent, I ask, ‘How did Mandla get all the scars?’ Madoda takes a while to answer. ‘Eish,’ he eventually says, ‘he was very doing his troubles, his troubles on the other side.’ I nodded encouragingly but Madoda’s face went blank and I realized that was all the answer I was going to get.
We talk about Sipho for a moment. Yes he’s a good boss! What about Madoda’s boss? ‘He’s a good boss too. ‘If we fight, it’s always money. He wants me to give him R400 per day.’ ‘If you take more than R400 does he let you keep that?’ I ask. Madoda doesn’t answer immediately, then he says, ‘Sometimes he doesn’t like it, but I give him R400 per day. I’m trying to do my best each and every day. He doesn’t have to worry about me; eight trips, four in the morning, four in the afternoon. Each and every day I’m giving him R400. I never fall short. I buy the petrol oil and give him the slip. He gives me R500 a week. Sipho Makhubu wants R400 a day but he gives his drivers R800 a week.
Madoda talks about his passengers. ‘You have to be a sweet person! Always you must be talking to passengers, sharing jokes with them. You must be friendly so that tomorrow when they see you coming they know now, that’s a good person to travel with. You must treat them the way they like it. Then sometimes they give you something to put on the table for the kids. Sometimes they give me a tip.’ ‘So,’ I say, ‘you do earn a little extra, you have your ways?’ “Yeah,’ he whispers, but I detect that he doesn’t wish to walk further down this road and I back off.
Madoda tells me that for two years he was a long distance driver between Joburg and the Eastern Cape. ‘I drove for an association outside [enormous taxi rank] Baragwanath Hospital. They’ve got those big Mercedes taxis that take people to Umtata. That was when my boss sold his taxis and I had to find another job. It was hell; I was spending a full seven days on the road. I spent very little time with my family, perhaps two hours or so. I departed from Baragwanath at six in the morning and I reached Umtata on the following day at four in the morning. At ten I start loading people and at four in the afternoon, I’m departing Umtata for Joburg. It was tough, tougher than this job! Fortunately I didn’t fall asleep on the road, I didn’t have an accident or whatever. No I didn’t take pills to stay awake.’ His present boss later returned to the taxi business and Madoda was pleased to join him again.
We speak about vehicles. Madoda would rather drive a Toyota because ‘it’s lighter, easier, doesn’t make me so tired.’ He’s finicky about cleanliness. Evidently passengers enjoy a clean vehicle. He won’t allow passengers to eat in his taxi. ‘If they’re eating they must stay outside until they’re finished.’ I look around at the scores of parked taxis, people moving quietly about, men snoozing in their vehicles, and I remark on the peaceful scene. ‘Yes it’s peaceful,’ Madoda says, ‘but in the boardroom the associations are always fighting; the Tswanas, the Pedis, and the Zulus; the Zulus, they always want to take over. I remembered something Sipho told me when I asked about taxi wars. He said that despite the rivalries, taxis are expensive and in order to protect their assets and their earnings, owners and associations largely abide by the rules. It’s often a newcomer trying to muscle in to the business who causes trouble or an association growing too powerful.
Madoda describes his one major accident. ‘It was early in the morning, about half past five. The weather was not so good, it was pouring, I was loading passengers, counting money and then as I put into first gear to pull out, I heard a big bang. It was a bus that hit me from behind. The driver came out to see what happened. Some of my passengers behind were injured. I asked that driver, “Hey man, how come you hit me from behind?” He said, “You know what? I tried to stop the bus and the weather was not good and my brakes weren’t good.” And then we took those people to hospital, Baragwanath, and then I went to the police station to make a statement. And those people who were injured, I went each and every day to see if they were all right or what. That was my duty.’
I complain about wild taxi drivers, mentioning particularly, those that drive and pass on the left of the yellow line on the Soweto Highway and those roaring up and down Houghton Drive. Madoda says, ‘Yes those people make us look the way we don’t want and they’re causing accidents. It’s because of pressure. Some owners want R500 per day, they’re pushing, “you must earn that money!” So they’re in a hurry; he wants to drop passengers in town and go back right away. I don’t drive fast. If a passenger says to me “please hurry, I’m going to be late,” I say to them, “you know what, you must wake up early in the morning, so that you can go at the right time. I can’t push this thing, this car faster so I can kill these innocent people.”
I complain again about driving in centre city when taxis pull out in front of me. ‘Yes,’ says Madoda I push out when I see the traffic conditions, but I don’t like to upset other people, we’re not all the same.’ I contemplate the far from easy life of a taxi driver. Madoda continues, ’And some bosses they don’t accept it when you are ill. If you have flu, you have to go and start the car and go to work. Why, because if you don’t go to work, you will come back to find out your car has been taken by somebody else.’
Madoda describes his life as one comprising work and more work, coupled with the exercise of great patience. His tastes are simple. He smokes but doesn’t drink except for a few beers at a party or a braai. He reiterates his desire for a regular job. He’s always looking around but he’s never been successful. He’d consider it a great improvement to start even at seven in the morning. He doesn’t have enough time for himself. He’s away at work for as much as fifteen hours a day. When he gets home at night he eats, bathes and falls asleep. He’d like to stop working on Sunday. He’d like to take his kids to church and have some time sitting in the sun reading the paper; and there’s the garden in his new house to develop. But his boss strongly resists the idea of an idle vehicle. Madoda is planning to subsidise a relief Sunday driver so that his ‘body can be relaxed.’
About the author: Mike has spent most of his life in Johannesburg. He earned his living as a human resources practitioner, first in large companies as a manager, [many stimulating years with AECI] and later in his own small HR consultancy. Much of his later occupational time was spent running training courses for managers on how to handle staff within the framework of South African labour legislation, He wrote and published The Manpower Brief, an IR, HR and sociopolitical newsletter, which was popular in many large companies during the 80s and early 90s. A selection of Briefs were incorporated into the book, People Really Matter published by Knowledge Resources. While working, he wrote several business books, one of which, on negotiating, was a sell-out.
In his ‘retirement,’ he has written extensively about Johannesburg, publishing articles mainly in The Star and Sunday Times. Working with Beryl Porter of Walk & Talk Tours, he developed and guided many walking tours around historic Joburg – Braamfontein, Parktown, Newtown, Centre City, Constitution Hill, Kensington & Troyeville, Fordsburg etc. He regularly took visitors to Soweto. His book Johannesburg Portraits – from Lionel Phillips to Sibongile Khumalo, offered popular biographical essays of well known Joburg citizens. His researched paper on Judge FET Krause who surrendered Johannesburg to Field Marshall Roberts during the Anglo-Boer War, was published in the Johannesburg Heritage Journal. The same journal published his series on famous local paleoanthropologists.
Mike is also a widely published poet. Botsotso recently published his third book of poetry, Poetic Licence. His current historical work, published by co-author Peter Delmar of the Parkview Press, The Johannesburg Explorer Book, takes readers on a journey through old Johannesburg, weaving together a history of events and people, which make this city such a fascinating place. His most recent book, a work of journalism, Twelve plus One, featuring transcribed interviews with Johannesburg poets was issued in 2014.
He lived with his wife Cecily, in a century old, renovated house on Langermann Kop, Kensington. A widower since July 2014, he now lives in Eventide Retirement Village in Muizenberg. He believes himself very fortunate in that his son, daughter in law and grandsons live nearby. His daughter lives in Sydney with her husband and son. In case you’re wondering, Luke Alfred, Mike’s son, is the well-known journalist and author.