Nowhere to Stop

Abigail Kemper, Lyse Comins, Maria Schuld and Mark Fingerhuth


Abigail, Lyse, Maria and Mark plan to tell the stories of taxi drivers by mapping three taxi routes in Durban with GIS and visualize the lack of safe and legal taxi stops in the city. With this project they want to help raise awareness about some of the issues surrounding public transport in South Africa.

Durban taxi drivers are often at the receiving end of the frustration of motorists and the wrath of eThekwini metro police as they navigate the city’s busy roads to service commuters. One of the biggest challenges facing taxi drivers and owners is the fact that there are only a few safe and legal places to stop to drop off and pick up passengers.

Taxi drivers like Xolani Sithole*, Siyabonga Cele* and Sandile Zulu* are caught between a rock and the deep blue sea, vexing motorists when they block roads to drop off passengers and slapped with traffic fines that add up to tens of thousands of rands for illegal stopping. But if taxi drivers don’t drop off commuters exactly where they demand they face the anger of their customers who are quick to report them to their taxi bosses. So, a driver has to break the law and dodge metro police fines if he chooses to please his passengers and avoid possible disciplinary action for doing the right thing, which would be to flatly refuse to stop in illegal and unsafe spots. But if they are caught drivers can’t always afford to pay these fines and they are served with a summons. investigates this important transport issue that ultimately affects every public transport user and citizen in the city.

*The names of all sources interviewed during the investigation have been changed to protect their identities because the taxi industry is highly competitive and can be volatile and physically dangerous at times.

Nowhere to Stop's story

Credits: Nowhere To Stop. Photographer: Thomas Wright

Durban domestic worker Dudu Sithole forks out half of her daily wages on taxi fare to get from her home in Dasenhoek to work in Morningside.

“I use a taxi every day from home to work and back because taxis are quicker than buses. Sometimes I take a bus from work if it comes first. Taxi drivers drive well, but they are not all the same,” she said.

Sithole spends half of her salary on taxi fare but she says it’s the best form of transport as there is no train station near her home.

“I spend R48 every day on taxis because I take two taxis from home to work and two back home every day,” Sithole said.

Taxi fare from Dasenhoek to the market taxi rank in the CBD costs R17 and she forks out a further R7 to get to her employer’s home in Morningside, a total of R576 in a four-week month.

Sithole starts work at 7.30am and goes home as soon as all of her work for the day has been completed.

“I am able to live from the money I earn and to save for transport which is half of my salary. I support my three kids and my husband also supports us as he’s working,” she said.

Sithole said she appreciates the fact that taxi drivers drop passengers anywhere along the route. She explained that a driver has never refused to drop her off or pick her up somewhere because of unsafe road conditions. “ I think it’s right that people ask to be dropped off anywhere because it’s where they are supposed to jump off.”

Sithole was not impressed with the suggestion of setting up designated safe taxi stops where drivers can drop passengers. She said that she wouldn’t be happy if a driver refused to drop her exactly she wanted. “But it would depend on the distance between where I wanted to be dropped off and where the driver thinks it’s safe to me off.”

She added that commuters were inconvenienced by the taxi strikes which sometimes arise when eThekwini Metro Police impound taxis because of the many unpaid traffic fines slapped on drivers for speeding and stopping illegally at bus stops and other no-stopping zones.

“Taxi strikes affect us as commuters because we come to work using taxis and when it’s time to go home taxis are not working, making it very hard for us to get back home,” Sithole said. During the last taxi strike, she took a bus going downtown and struggled to get a taxi back home. In the end, she called a relative to pick her up and drive her home.

Several taxi drivers across the city who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were afraid of retribution from taxi bosses and passengers said it was a problem that there were no designated taxi stops anywhere in the city and surrounding suburbs.

“I sometimes pretend that I can’t hear the passengers when they ask me to drop them in unsafe places like on the freeway here coming into town because I know it’s not safe for them to jump off,” said one driver.

Taxi drivers said they would appreciate signs in their taxis to educate commuters about the need to stop in safe zones but they were doubtful and afraid that their customers would not take “no” for an answer.

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By Lyse Comins

Zwelithini Mncwabe is always the first one awake in his Umlazi home by 4am, leaving his wife and children fast asleep as he makes the journey across town to collect his taxi and start the day’s work. His route runs from the leafy Durban suburb of Morningside to the bustling CBD market and back, and occasionally, he’s called on to hit the long distance route to Stanger.

Mncwabe works extremely hard to get his customers to work on time, continuously trying to keep them safe and happy as he dodges police fines, traffic lights and motorists’ insults. It’s all in a day’s work for him and hundreds of taxi drivers across the city.

“I usually work seven days a week, starting from 5am to 7pm,” he says. “I do eleven round trips on a busy day and maybe eight on a quiet day.” His busiest days, he explains, are Monday, Friday and Saturday, and the last day of the month is always frenetic.

“The owner expects me to cash R1,000 every day since I’m driving a 22-seater, but if I don’t make R1,000 he doesn’t shout at me because he understands not all days are the same.”

Mncwabe says that if you cash R600 the owner will ask you what “transpired” and as a driver, you have to explain why. “I do feel under pressure to do as many trips as possible every day, especially since we have seven 22-seaters working the same route for the owner,” he says.

But it’s risky on the route and much like several other taxi drivers who stop in the vicinity of Warwick Junction, he is concerned about dodging traffic fines, and of course, the safety of his passengers.

“There are not enough safe places to drop off and pick up passengers on my route in Durban and surrounding areas,” he insists. “This is because there are no places assigned for taxi stops.”

So, Mncwabe stops illegally, sometimes unsafely, near traffic lights, at bus stops, close to fire hydrants and sometimes to the frustration of motorists, in the middle of a busy traffic lane at rush hour, all to drop off and pick up passengers.

He says that motorists view taxi drivers as “skhotheni”. “They have no respect for us, they call us names and shout at us for stopping in no-stopping areas.”

But he feels he has no choice but to stop at these unsafe places because passengers shout at him if he doesn’t. “Some say that they have been jumping off in the same place for over 20 years, but if the police see me [doing this] they give me a fine.”

Mncwabe and other drivers have to fork out of their own pockets to pay these fines without any help from their taxi owner bosses. But on a weekly wage of just R1,000 it’s impossible to keep up with the fines that are pouring in.

“I cannot afford to pay all my fines, recently I was stopped and found to have a warrant for my arrest for a R600 fine. I was released after I had paid that R600. I also have a R300 summons,” he says.

Mncwabe says that since the government knows the taxi industry is a busy one they should create taxi stops just like the bus stops situated all over cities and towns throughout the country. He likes the idea of formal taxi stops but is worried his customers might not be so keen on such a major change.

“Having a map displayed inside my taxi showing commuters safe stops may work, but I tell you, commuters will not accept it,” he says.

By the time Mncwabe has navigated his route for the eleventh time for the day and safely dropped off his last customer the sun has slipped away and he makes his way home.

“If there was one thing I could change about my life – that would be waking up early, leaving my family asleep and coming back when my children are asleep. My hopes and dreams for the future is to get a job that won’t make me leave my house as early as 4am and come back late so I can get enough time to spend with my family.”

To get a better idea of what public transport looks like in the Durban CBD, we decided to visit the Inanda Taxi Rank, situated in Durban’s CBD. The local fire station offered to give us an overview by climbing up their 40m ladder.

Inanda Taxi Rank: Inanda Taxi Rank started out next to the bus rank but was then moved across the street after the municipality made space for the numerous taxis ferrying people from the CBD to areas like KwaMashu, Lindelani, Siyanda, South Gate and Mt Moriah. eThekwini Municipality has had to make a lot of space for taxis over the years. In the Durban CBD alone there are now 56 demarcated taxi ranks and 2,604 bays in total.

Fire truck: To get a better overview, the Durban Fire Station offered to take us 40m up into the air with this fire truck.

Ladder extension: We climbed into a basket on the end of this extension ladder.

Going up: I didn’t let go of the rail while taking these photos so couldn’t alter the zoom. I kept my eye in the viewfinder and the view just got further and further away.

Going up and up: This is not a drone!

It’s swaying at 40m up: There you can see the white roof of the Inanda Bus station next to the blue roofs of the taxi rank. “We’re done now, let’s go back down!”

Safer Taxi Stops is a project that aims to provide commuters, government leaders and taxi drivers with a useful guide on safe places to pick up and drop off passengers in the city of Durban while putting a human face to taxi drivers who are often only featured in the media when they down tools and violently hold the city to ransom over fine disputes with metro police.

We plan to tell the story of taxi drivers who are fined to the hilt for stopping illegally around town because there are insufficient legal safe places for them to stop at the roadside. However, they can’t afford to pay these exorbitant fines on their paltry wages, sometimes as low as R100 a day, while other taxi drivers hire their vehicles from taxi owners and have to earn their income through servicing as many customers as possible each day which comes with its own problems. These fines pile up and the city’s metro police department then starts pulling over and impounding vehicles when drivers’ refuse to pay, resulting in prolonged strikes every couple of years that have a ripple effect on passengers and the entire local economy which loses millions of rands in lost productivity.

Durban’s taxi drivers might stop hundreds of times a day to pick up or drop off passengers. They stop at traffic lights, bus stops, on the highway, in the taxi rank and sometimes in the middle of the road. If we look through their eyes, what do we see? Who are they? How do their days on the road look like? What pressures and challenges guide their behaviour? What infrastructure do they find on their route? Where are they allowed to stop? Where do they need to stop? What makes them stop in dangerous places?

We want to get to know three taxi drivers and tell their story in words, but also with data. Recording their daily life in the taxi, from the amount of traffic lights they pass to the passengers they carry and the litres of petrol consumed daily, might help us to understand and develop tools to allow others to see their perspective.

Mapping the drivers’ routes allows us to identify problem areas and safe zones to stop. We want to process these maps so that they can be used as a negotiating tool for safer taxi stops, for example when discussing public transport infrastructure with the city, or when educating their passengers on designated spots to alight from or enter a taxi. These maps can be physically placed in taxis and displayed online.

Perhaps, if there were maps of safe places to stop that could be placed in taxis and handed to passengers, as well as presented online, then drivers would have a clear guide to be able to advise passengers that they will no longer stop wherever convenient, and illegally, for them at the side of the road. Passenger resistance to safer stops has been a problem for taxi drivers who have expressed interest in such maps.

We plan to gather data on existing routes and stops and to interview taxi drivers, commuters, city planners, metro police, motorists, taxi owners and taxi conductors during the course of the project.

Our Team

Abigail Kemper

Abigail Kemper (née Knox) is cofounder of TaxiMap, a social enterprise start-up, providing information on minibus taxi routes, fare prices and hours of operation to all commuters. Other than by word of mouth, this information has never before been available or accessible to people who travel by minibus taxis in South Africa. Based in Durban, Abigail is also sole proprietor of Three Consulting. Like the triple bottom line (people, planet and profit) there are three elements that define and underpin her work: energy, environment and people. Her work involves multi-disciplinary research and project management in the fields of sustainable energy, informality, economic development and the green economy. She is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Cape Town.

Lyse Comins

Lyse Comins (née Ramos) is a South African journalist and media consultant who writes regular consumer columns for Independent Media (The Post) and Media 24 (The Witness) and contributes news stories and features regularly to titles including Freight and Trading Weekly, Sunday Tribune, The Post and Daily News. She is a media consultant to the largest privately owned armed response company in the country, Blue Security. She was previously editor of Consumer Fair and worked as a staff reporter at Daily News, The Mercury and Independent on Saturday. Her articles have also been published in The Star, Cape Times, Pretoria News, Zululand Observer, Cape Argus and Leadership. Lyse is based in Durban and studying towards a Master’s of Technology Degree in Journalism at the Durban University of Technology. She loves working with people and she is passionate about human and consumer rights and seeing the watchdog role of the media fulfilled.

Maria Schuld

Maria Schuld is originally from Germany and decided many years ago to make the beautiful city of Durban her new home. She is about to finish her PhD in a rather curious discipline called quantum machine learning, which is a mixture of machine learning and quantum theory. She loves science for constantly challenging her understanding of the world and its internal structures and is eager to share this passion with like-minded people around her. To this end Maria founded the Hawu! Science Outreach Initiative, which received the Outreach Startup award from the German Academic Foundation in 2015. She is also a mentor in the Bright Stars Mentorship programme since 2014 and a dedicated surfer and dancer.

Mark Fingerhuth

Mark Fingerhuth is from Germany but feels much more at home when traveling and living abroad. He is about to finish his BSc in Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Maastricht, The Netherlands. His passions range from theoretical physics and programming to sustainability and he is currently writing his thesis in the field of quantum machine learning. In the beginning of 2016 he co-founded the web design company Macademia, which primarily develops websites for social entrepreneurs and NGOs. When not working, you will either find him cooking fancy meals in the kitchen, meditating near a waterfall or learning to surf on Durban's beautiful waves.

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