Just outside the imposing Carlton Centre, at the corner of Commissioner and Von Wielligh streets, loud maskandi music can be heard blaring from the parked minibus taxis. A silver Toyota Quantum silently joins the queue of taxis waiting to load passengers for the mid-morning rush.
It stands out for looking roadworthy among the many taxis that look more like old car parts assembled in a hurry, that seem to be held together only by the drivers’ prayers and God’s grace.
On entering the silver taxi, one is welcomed by the calm voice of a Talk Radio 702 news anchor reading the top-of-the-hour news. Nomusa Ngcobo, also widely known as Gogo Ngcobo by regular commuters, taxi marshals and drivers, reveals an off-white set of teeth as she warmly greets the passengers as they fill up her taxi.
Every seat taken, the vehicle takes off but is soon slowed down by another taxi overtaking it. The passengers in Gogo’s taxi are treated to the spectacle of two taxis driving dangerously close to each other as the overtaking driver asks for loose change from the one in front of Gogo’s taxi, all this while both vehicles are in motion.
“Bheka la manyala bawenzayo! Mabeqeda bazibiza oodriver.” [Look at this nonsense they are doing! And then they call themselves drivers], says Gogo while honking at her fellow drivers.
The South African taxi industry is known for its fraught relationship with women, be they drivers or passengers. There have been a number of reports of gender-based violence in taxis and around taxi ranks.
In December 2011, there was an incident of two teenage girls being harassed by a group of over 20 taxi drivers at the Noord taxi rank. The men taunted the girls about the length of their skirts, groped them and took pictures with their mobile phones. Even though the police intervened and took the girls away to safety, to this day no arrests have been made.
In 2015, a taxi driver was filmed manhandling a female passenger just because her cellphone rang while she was in the vehicle. These are just two occurrences that were highly publicised but many more occur on a daily basis without being reported.
Still I rise
Women taxi drivers are few and far between in this male-dominated industry, and Gogo Ngcobo is one of the few that can still be found in the various Johannesburg taxi ranks, as the majority has now retired.
The 60-year-old mother of three has been in the taxi industry for over 30 years. Her children, Vivian, Given and Lilian are not fans of her being a driver as they feel it is a dangerous enterprise, particularly for a woman.
She says Given, her son, constantly asks his mother to get a gun – as a way to protect herself – like most taxi drivers.
In response, the single parent reminds her children that it was the taxi business that put food on their table and educated them, so they should not look down on the business.
Waking up at 4am every day is no big deal for Ngcobo. When she was a young girl growing up in Orlando East, Soweto, her grandfather was an owner of several sedan taxis. She says she and her sister would wake up early every morning to help their uncle and grandfather to wash the sedans, check oil and water and warm up the vehicles. The two men would head out to the rank for the day, leaving the young girls to go about their house chores, before going to school.
“Growing up, I knew I wanted to be a driver, especially a truck driver, but when I found out that truck drivers get hijacked a lot I became fearful,” she says, her eyes focused on the road as she drives.
After falling pregnant in Grade 10, Ngcobo did not return to school. She found work in the Johannesburg Central Business District (CBD) as an assistant at an Indian-owned shop selling curtains and homeware, where she stayed for 12 years.
While still a shop assistant, she would spend time at the taxi rank where her grandfather worked, and her liking of cars and driving was reignited. She took the scarcity of women in the taxi industry as a challenge and got more and more involved in the family business.
In 1984, Ngcobo became a driver for her family’s taxis, however, within six years the business was no more, after the vehicles had been hijacked or stolen during turf wars. When the taxis were sedans, the industry was highly regulated and controlled, with only a few black operators being issued with permits. After the industry was deregulated in 1987, South Africa saw the emergence of the minibus taxi, and and fierce competition amongs operators for passengers and profitable routes.
Undeterred, Gogo Ngcobo decided to start her own business, and so N Ngcobo Taxis – as per inscription on her taxis – was born in 1990. This was a dangerous time for any male taxi driver or owner, let alone a woman, yet Ngcobo has never looked back.
As a taxi owner, Ngcobo is a member of the Witwatersrand African Taxi Association (WATA). Her four taxis collectively rake in close to R2000 per day.
Back in the taxi, Ngcobo counts the money the passengers have given her, and she realises that it is R5 short. A single trip between the city and Orlando should earn her a total of R180. Instead of getting angry, Ngcobo calmly says, “Iyekele, ayisenani ngane, angeke ibuye manje” [Leave it, it doesn’t matter my child, it’s not going to come back now.]
Male drivers do not have extend such mercy to their passengers. Not when it comes to their money. A male driver would have shouted and disrespected the passengers until someone produced the missing R5.
Driving taxis can be demanding. Road rage, accidents, taxi turf wars and even criminals pretending to be passengers are just some of the problems drivers contend with. Ngcobo says the sexism she experiences does not only come from taxi drivers; passengers are rude to her just because she is a woman.
They make sexist comments and shout at her, calling her names such as s’febe [bitch]. As the driver she has to stay calm at all times. She says when she first started out as a driver, many passengers doubted her abilities at first, but now that some are used to her they have become comfortable.
She says it is strange that some men have a problem with her being a taxi driver, and yet do not have an issue with their wives, sisters or daughters driving cars.
In September 2016, the South African National Taxi Council established provincial desks to deal with some of the issues female taxi drivers and owners deal with on the job, especially discrimination from male counterparts.
Chairwoman of the Gauteng Women’s Desk, Memory Modigoe, says these steps are long overdue. “Most of the women in this industry are not informed about running the business and they are vulnerable.
We want to create a space where women can be taught how to run their business, and where they receive the necessary support,” says Modigoe, who is a taxi owner.
She says her passion is to empower women operators and to create a platform where their issues are taken seriously even within the various taxi associations where women’s voices are not often listened to.
“I came into this business after my husband, a taxi owner, was shot and killed.
I was afraid, but I made a decision that I would run this business. We want women who are in the position I was in, and other situations they may have, to see we are here for them.”
In 2015, the Department of Transport compiled an action plan document in which it has given itself and the taxi industry a two-year time frame to transform the taxi industry, by allowing more female representation in its structures, especially at leadership and decision-making levels such as in associations.
As much as this initiative is great on paper, Ngcobo explains that it will be difficult especially with married women who are still suppressed by patriarchy, even in their own homes, as this job is demanding and means less time at home being a wife.
“Kukhona la kuzomosheka khona and kuzomele ukhethe,” warns Ngcobo. [There will be a time when all comes down crumbling and you must choose.]
After indulging in her cooling, yet filling, meal on this hot day, Ngcobo relaxes in the passenger seat behind the driver’s. Quickly, itis, a general feeling of lethargy experienced after eating a satisfying meal, seems to be attacking her as her eyelids struggle to fight sleep. Her phone rings.
“Uyabona nawe abathandi ma imoto imile iskhathi eside,” she says as she drops the call from her son. She explains that her children check on her once the taxi’s tracker alerts them that the vehicle has not moved in a while.
“They think something is wrong and don’t understand that sometimes when I’m done with my trips I park the taxi and sleep or eat lunch.”
Trackers were installed in Ngcobo’s four taxis when she purchased them. This was done mainly for insurance purposes as she is still paying off the fleet. She says it was also a smart business move as she is able to also keep a close eye on her drivers, to see whether their distances and routes correlate with the money they bring in at the end of the day.
“Hayi ukuthi angibathembi, kodwa li-business.” [Not that I don’t trust my drivers but this is business.]
“Ubaba bengekhe abuzwe kungani e-tracker abashayeli bakhe ngoba bayaqonda ukuthi uvikela imali yakhe nebusiness lakhe.” [If it were a man no one would question why he tracks his taxis and drivers because it would be understand that he’s protecting his money and business.]
Gogo jumps back to the driver’s seat, opens the overhead compartment and starts to apply foundation and lipstick, an unusual sight to witness in the driver’s seat of a taxi.
“Yebo ngishayela amatekisi kodwa ngise ngumama ozithandayo,” [Yes I drive taxis but at the end of the day I’m still a woman who cares about her appearance and loves herself], she says giggling.
It is the late afternoon rush and hordes of commuters swarm the taxi rank to make their way home, and hawkers peddling a variety of goods ranging from foodstuff to clothing, are keen to get rid of more of their stock before close of business. Gogo Ngcobo reverses her taxi from where she was resting, to join the queue, and to ferry the last load of passengers for the day, before she can make her own way home. Tomorrow, she will do it all over again, from 4am.
FEATURED IMAGE: BEHIND THE WHEEL: Gogo Ngcobo chats to her passengers. Photo: Olwethu Boso