Joburg by taxi


Getting around Joburg on a minibus taxi can be daunting for newbies. But once you know your short right from your after robot, and your Diepsloot from your Orange Farm, it’s the fastest, most popular and often the cheapest way to get where you want to go.

Taxis---text Minibus taxis are by far the most popular – and are often the cheapest – form of public transport in South Africa, used mainly by the urban and rural poor. (Image: Arrive Alive)

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Ray Maota

Minibus taxis are by far the most popular – and are often the cheapest – form of public transport in South Africa, used mainly by the urban and rural poor.

In Johannesburg, using a taxi can be bewildering, and even frightening, if you are not from the city of gold. Here’s a quick guide to ease your way.

To board a taxi in the city of Johannesburg, you must first get to the appropriate taxi rank. Here, hundreds of minibus taxis converge to ferry commuters to their various destinations in and out of Gauteng province, and even across the border to neighbouring countries.

The Johannesburg CBD has four major taxi ranks: Noord Street Taxi Rank, Bree Street Taxi Rank, Wanderers Taxi Rank and Faraday Taxi Rank. At any of the four, you can get a taxi to anywhere in Gauteng, while some also cater for taxis beyond the province.

Noord Street is by far the largest and busiest rank in the middle of the city. As you approach the rank, especially during peak hours, you are swarmed by hordes of hurrying commuters. You are also confronted by hawkers peddling a variety of goods, ranging from foodstuff to clothing and anything else in-between.

The taxi ranks are the easiest part of your journey to navigate as there is signage and you stand in queues to board a taxi to your destination. It’s when you are not at a taxi rank that you have to be fluent in taxi sign language – there are no written signs; it’s all done by a complicated series of hand signals. And South African minibus taxis stop wherever they are needed along whatever road they are driving. They do not have designated stops; you simply have to flag one down – using the correct hand signal, of course.

A language like no other

Every day thousands of hands stretch out along commuter routes across Gauteng speaking a silent language of taxi hand signals. According to artist Susan Woolf, taxi hand signs are a shared language, learned by imitation and word of mouth.

Woolf is a recognised expert in Gauteng taxi hand signs, or what is really the Gauteng dialect of what has been called South Africa’s 12th official language. She spent many years of research and artistic production focusing on the signals, documenting and deciphering them. Along the way, she has created a lexicon for blind people to comfortably use this mode of transport.

“They are basic gestures tied to narrative threads that swirl through community life connecting today with history and folklore,” says Woolf.

They are complex, she adds. They often have an indexical aspect in that they “point to” the place to which they refer and often use the gestural shape of a pointing finger, or a finger or hand in motion towards the place indicated. But some of the signs have iconic features of resemblance, such as the shape of the orange for T Junction, Orange Farm or KwaThema, all places in Gauteng; others have symbolic arbitrary, purely conventional qualities.

Signs and destinations

According to Woolf, a taxi hand sign may refer to a place that has retained its indigenous name but it may just as easily refer to an event associated with it, or a physical attribute of the place, or even a shopping mall that is the main feature of a place.

There are two basic signs that commuters in Johannesburg. One is the index figure pointing up, which means town; the other is the index figure pointing down, meaning local. This takes you anywhere within the suburb you are in.

The KwaThema taxi hand sign is performed showing two flat hands, palms together, resting on the left side of the person’s face.

The taxi hand sign to Kliptown is one hand waving left to right in front of their faces and the other hand waves up and down, to ask the taxi to slow down.

The sign to Orange Farm is directly descriptive of its name. With a forward pointing hand, all four fingers and the thumb are bent upwards as if to hold an orange.

The taxi sign to Diepsloot is acted out with one hand in a sequence of hand postures, dipping downwards and then upwards in a forward movement several times.

If you want to get to Fourways, in Johannesburg, just hold up your hand with four fingers exposed and your thumb tucked in.


Taxi lingo

But it’s not only the hand signals that are important. There are also phrases you’ll need to understand, such as “short right”, “short left”, “after robot” and “dankie”.

They might sound confusing but they are literal meanings of where the passenger wants to alight.

Short right means you want to get off at the next street to the right and vice-versa with short left.

After robot means you want to get off after the next traffic light the taxi goes through.

Here, or dankie, which actually means “thank you” in Afrikaans, has been the subject of many squabbles between driver and passenger. Many taxi drivers feel it’s too ambiguous. They prefer a passenger to be specific, for example “after robot”.