How taxi drivers in South Africa make me realise my perspective is not the only one that matters
To understand why taxi drivers do what they do, we’d have to ask one and not blindly assume their view of the world is wrong. If we block someone’s point of view because we ‘know’ we are right, we are selfish and ignorant. Before the hair on the back of South African’s necks raise as they read this, let me clear something up. I do not condone the behaviour of mini-bus taxi drivers on our roads in SA. Many of them are extremely reckless and are a danger to other drivers and their own passengers. Much of what they do on the road is even illegal. That said, let’s take a look at what they are doing from another perspective.
A mini-bus taxi driver has a route he travels and needs to get up and down that route as many times as possible in a morning or afternoon to make as much money as possible. He can only load 10-15 passengers in his vehicle, depending on the size. So, for every trip he does, his income is capped at a certain point. Majority of his trips also happen to be during peak hour traffic. This directly affects his ability to make more money no matter how efficient, patient, law abiding he tries to be. The driver often does not own the vehicle he is driving; he has to pay the owner a fixed fee per day/week/month and the rest of the money he makes is his to take home. The driver also relies on a fare collector to receive passenger payments and give them change. Passengers are climbing on and off at every stopping point and he has to trust the accounting is in order because he needs to concentrate on driving.
Let’s dive deeper into a taxi driver’s world: Let’s say he has about 12 passengers at any point in time that need to be at work asap. No driver wants to upset 12 customers at once, he wants them to be happy customers because he is not the only taxi on the route, he has competition. So, while he is pushing to do as many trips as he can to make money, while he is making you very angry, he is also thinking of his customers. He needs to get them to work on time and believe it or not, customer service is a priority for taxi drivers. On his route a taxi driver has to stop at many ‘central’ points to collect customers. Most of these ‘central’ collection spots are not demarcated for them to stop at and those that are, usually cannot cater for the amount of taxis stopping there at the same time. So, they stop at what seems random points to normal drivers. For good and bad reasons, there aren’t enough pick-up/drop-off points for taxis, especially in urban areas. Bus lanes are almost non-existent in SA. A taxi driver has no dedicated lane to drive in, but he has to share the legal lane with hundreds of other vehicles that have one passenger inside, while he carries twelve people to work. In other words, because I choose to drive alone to work and not ride-share, twelve people in a taxi need to wait for me (alone) when I am ahead of them. The price of fuel goes up constantly in SA. As I write this, it sits around R17 per litre. Most customers getting into a taxi are not in a position to absorb every price increase passed on to them, so the overhead goes up, decreasing profitability. The driver has to be creative in order to keep his income from dipping. There are many other challenges that a taxi driver contends with, but I will stop here to avoid labouring the point.
Now, try for a moment to imagine you were the driver and need to earn money to feed your family and send your children to school. You have a fixed route to drive. You have a limited number of customers on a trip. You have to pay the owner of the taxi a fixed fee before you can take any money home. You have strong competition. You are trying to keep your customers happy, so that they will return. Keeping them happy means getting them to their destination alive and on time. It also means being at the pick-up point on time. You operate in peak hour traffic. Everyone on the road hates you. Nobody lets you in when you need to change lanes. You contend with increasing fuel costs and a customer base that is very price sensitive. The government is not very supportive of your business. You have very few dedicated pick-up points and you have no dedicated lane to drive in. All you want to do is keep your customers happy, get them to work on time, get paid, pay your dues, and take some money home for your family. It is a job. Not a glamourous one, but it helps drive the economy forward because without you most of our workforce would not be at work today. How tempting does that emergency lane look when you consider that?
When you change your perspective, you quickly realise that taxi drivers have few options at their disposal when it comes to doing what they need to. In many countries the roads are a free-for-all, chaos is an understatement. In other countries there are dedicated lanes for taxis and buses, it is very orderly. South Africa falls somewhere in the middle. All the driver is trying to do is get his customers to work on time. I do not believe that if they had working, dedicated lanes and stopping points that they would not use them. If the system was more supportive of our public transport providers, they would probably not be such a ‘problem’ to us (spoiled individuals) with the luxury of driving a five-seater car to work on our own. Instead, we have a vicious cycle that occurs – taxi drivers can’t do their jobs because there is no support for them, they drive recklessly, other drivers hate them, cut them off, block them from crossing lanes and so they resort to illegal driving tactics again which make us angrier and we react again and so do they and it carries on.
The point here is not to defend or debate the issue around mini-bus taxis on South Africa’s roads. It is just an example of how we can try living a day (or even a moment) in someone else’s shoes. When we change our perspectives for a brief moment and understand someone else’s situation or the reason they behave in a certain way, it allows us to open up to the possibility that we don’t possess the only (correct) view of the world. The problem is that people are too proud to see the world through someone else’s eyes. They feel that if they do they might be wrong about certain things and have to admit it. Actually, the opposite should happen. If we open ourselves up to another’s view of the world, embrace someone else’s perspective, we might see that we were wrong, learn something and find a way to solve the problem that caused them to behave the way they did.
What if South Africans stood together to fight for better public transport? What if we all fought for a better mini-bus supportive system to get our employees, colleagues and fellow South Africans to work safely, on time and legally? Or is it just easier to complain? Is it just easier to live in our own worlds where nobody else’s perspective matters?
Before you judge someone the next time, ask yourself this – What don’t I know about their situation? What if I shifted my perspective to theirs? What if I reframed this situation?