5.21.2009

A Most Unusual Taxi Ride

Years ago, back in the early 90's, I spent a year living overseas in Cape Town in South Africa. This was before the first Democratic elections, there was quite alot of strife, violence and general insanity across the entire country. But it was mostly centered around Johannesburg to the northeast.

The cheapest and most convenient way to get around the city without a car was to take the minibus taxis that would run into and out of the city. These were stripped minibuses made to hold as many people as possible and were sometimes referred to as black taxis because the predominant customers were blacks and mixed race folks.

I lived outside the city and worked in the downtown so I took a taxi in more often than not and almost never had any problems doing so. Yes, I'm a white guy but, upon hearing my American accent, any dislike was immediately replaced by questions, lots of questions about America. One rather interesting thing that I learned was that most South Africans seemed to think that America was made up of New York City and Los Angeles and pretty much nothing else. They patently refused to believe me when I would explain that the US was much, much larger than South Africa with fifty states and a whole variety of people across the nation.

But anyway, one day, when I left the health club and caught a taxi heading home, I climbed into the front seat next to a white girl and the rest of the taxi was loaded with blacks and mixed race folks. Most everyone was in a pretty good mood and the driver was a very, very dark skinned man with a bright white smile and a happy demeanor to him.

We stopped again on the way out of town and picked up a quite obviously drunk as a skunk mixed race man. He crawled into the minibus, stepping on people and generally making an immediate nuisance of himself. Once he got settled, he saw that there were two white people in the van and immediately started to talk about the upcoming elections.

And he talked about how he was going to kill lots of white people once the blacks had control of the country. And how he was going to move into a mansion in Camp's Bay. And how he was going to have a white servant working for him. And on and on.

The white girl next to me got very tense and would do nothing but stare straight ahead. The others in the minibus tried to talk some reason to the guy, telling him that he should shut up, that things weren't going to happen like he was saying, that the country needed the white people as much as the blacks, coloreds and orientals (what some called the Asians/Indian population).

But nothing would quiet him down and he took to pointing his long bony finger at me and the white girl, saying that we would suffer like he'd suffer. He said a lot of stuff in Xhosa, a local tribal language, that I didn't understand. But he also said plenty in English for our benefit. The others in the minibus became a bit more forceful in their telling him to shut up, he was acting like an ass, etc.

The previously happy and smiling driver was no longer smiling and was spending as much time looking in his rear view at the drunk rabblerouser as at the road ahead.

I can't quite recall what exactly was said but he pulled over the taxi after something particularly abrasive was shouted by the drunk guy. Four or five of the other passengers grabbed him, the driver jumped out (he was a big, big man), grabbed his whacking stick from behind his seat. They yanked the drunk guy out, dragged him to the other side of the street, up a short flight of stairs, tossed him to the ground and the driver smashed him upside the head with his stick.

He might have hit him again, I wasn't sure.

Then, everyone came back down, climbed back in the van, smiles came back out, the driver said something cheerful to me and the white girl and we went on our way. The other passengers were laughing about it already.

As we drove away, I looked back at where the drunk guy had been knocked down behind the building. He'd gotten to his feet and appeared from behind the wall, blood streaming down his face, shouting and gesticulating with his hands. I couldn't hear what he was saying but it didn't really matter.

The funny thing was that, at no time did I feel even the slightest bit threatened by him. I think it was because all of the other passengers were so strongly telling him to shut up, how wrong he was, how stupid he was being. The white girl sitting next to me definitely felt really scared and worried for her safety but she also visibly relaxed when the drunk guy had been removed.

And that was about the strangest taxi ride I've ever been on.
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