The Streets Pay Her Bills…

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Yinka Olatunbosun reports on an unusual encounter with a female cab driver in Johannesburg, South Africa whose touching story x-rays the life of a single mother and the strong will to survive.

Nolutsha Gwaxa is one of the few female cab drivers in Johannesburg. As a matter of fact, the only one I encountered during my recent 10-day visit. On my last weekend in the city, I made an appointment with her that she kept and I decided to retain her, a choice that was more economical than missing an international flight. Asides her punctuality, she speaks English fluently which is an asset to a visitor who struggles to hear the heavily accented natives. On our way back to the hotel, I noticed from a distance that a white man presumably in his forties and a young black male, perhaps in his twenties were having an altercation and the latter was aiming a big stone towards the cab’s windshield.

“Wait’, I called out in panic to Nolutsha whose gaze shifted immediately from the GPS to the scene before her. As she pulled away, she mused about how an accident could have just happened to us. That led to a series of narratives on what she had seen on the streets as a cab driver. Before we reached the hotel, I noticed a mammoth gathering on both sides of a busy road, with yellow barriers mounted by the security personnel in front of a cathedral. She corrected my view immediately as I thought it was a protest march. Her laughter continued longer than I expected, evidently she enjoyed my sense of fear- it was humorous to her. It was a church that had more attendees than seating areas. “But South Africans must love the church a lot and God even more to be standing outside in the temperature of six degree Celsius,’’ I thought.

But Nolu’s story is more chilling than the weather. She had been carjacked more than three times. When this reporter asked why she chose that dangerous means to survive, she decided to tell her story.

“I wanted to be a police but that dream didn’t come through. I’d say I didn’t have Grade 12 and a driver’s license and the opportunity was lost on me. I got married in 1994 and divorced two years later. I moved to Johannesburg to stay with my father who was working at a state council. I got jobs. I worked in a restaurant, Mc Donalds, and later I worked at various offices. In 2011, I lost my job. I thought it’d be easy to get another but I couldn’t. I ended up on the street working as a cab driver,’’ she revealed.

But it wasn’t an easy decision at first. After she lost her job, Nolu couldn’t pay her rent and so she had to move in with a friend. The bank where she obtained her car loan was threatening to repossess her car and another friend advised her to use the car to generate income.

“At that point, I didn’t like the idea. I used to wear stilettos and sit in an office, wear make-up and this friend of mine is looking down on me, telling me to be a cab driver. I thought she wasn’t serious. Later, I discussed it with the friend that accommodated me and she promised to support me. I would sit on the streets and drive people that I didn’t know. When I saw anyone that would recognize me, I would hide, especially from those who knew that I used to work in an office,’’ she recounted.

One day, she decided to stop hiding. After all, it is legitimate business and it pays her bills. She has moved back to her apartment and is currently building a house in her village where she hails from.
“The streets pay my bills. I needed to make peace with the streets and before I knew it, everyone knows that I am now a cab driver. This is my fifth year on the job,’’ she said, smiling.

There’s no gainsaying that the job is financially rewarding. But it comes with loads of challenges. The fear of harassment and robbery has diminished the number of women who drive cabs in Johannesburg. Nolu recalled a few of such incidents.

“One happened along the route to the OR Tambo International Airport but I survived it. The second one happened when I took a client from a well-known hotel in Braamfontein to a place downtown. I gave the client my phone number to call me once he was ready. When I got there, I called him. But he took his time to come down so I had to wait for him. It was a busy street and you’d not expect carjacking in such a place. I noticed a man the first time he passed by but I thought he was going towards the ATM. Then he returned all of a sudden and snatched the car keys.’’

Fortunately, she had a tracker on the car and she was able to monitor the car’s movement. But that was not until she had help from a young boy of about 20 years who offered her his phone to make a call. Other by-standers who were watching as she was been robbed came to ask for details. The car tracking company gave her updates on the stolen car every 15 minutes and even sent one helicopter which located the car in Soweto. The carjacker dumped the car and took Nolu’s personal belongings. Her son drove her in her second car to recover the stolen vehicle.

Meanwhile, she intended to do cab business with the second car. She had engaged an elderly man who suddenly vanished with the car. With the aid of her car tracker, she located the car in Soweto and the man she had engaged to drive it so she can pay her bills was sleeping inside it at 1 a.m. when the tracking company informed her about the car’s location.
Inspite of these unpleasant experiences, she didn’t quit the cab business. Once, her son wrote on his Facebook status: “Mama, I always pray for you.’’ She had tears in her eyes as she recalled.

“It touched me. He is not one who talks much. When I read it, I knew where that was coming from. Once at Kempton Park, I was carjacked and just about a week later in Joburg, I was almost carjacked again. Someone came to me with a gun in his hand and said he wouldn’t shoot me; I should just come out of the car quietly. But I don’t get discouragement. I had only ten rand when I started this job. Sometimes, I would get another cab to do business until I recover my stolen car,’’ she recounted.

Weekends are the busiest for most cab drivers in Joburg as night crawlers line the streets waiting for cabs. Nolu used to work for 24 hours on weekends but the spate of carjacking and other crimes had forced her to reduce her working hours.

“Of recent, women and children are getting killed. I don’t want to become the statistics. A girl was raped to death by her boyfriend and ever since that incident, it was as if a horn has been blown to every man to attack women and children. Some missing girls are found with dismembered bodies,’’ she said.

She also disclosed how the South African government had intervened in the matter with stricter watch on young girls who are the most vulnerable to attacks.

“There was a girl who was rescued by the immigration officers who searched through her travel documents and discovered that it was a scam and she didn’t even know. Some had fallen for scholarship scams which are disguised sex slavery,’’ she revealed.

Nolu smiled as she was asked if she will try to love again. Having survived abusive relationships and now in her mid-forties, her concern is on growing her business, not a man’s ego. Having registered her company, she pays her daily income into her business account and pays herself a monthly salary from it. But she is not planning to drive commercially forever.

“’I want to have a fleet of cars that I will assign to drivers who work for me. I want to alleviate poverty so that people won’t be complaining about unemployment,’’ she said.

Her son is currently learning how to install satellites though he has been doing some technical jobs at various companies in Johannesburg. The conversation continued even after the recorder has been stopped. She offered to take me around the city where other stories abound. For instance, she wanted me to see the young ladies from Nigeria who hang around the streets as commercial sex workers; the Nigerians who “came to Joburg in flip-flops who now drive around in exotic cars’’ on the heels of successful businesses; and a local market where second-hand goods are sold.

All I wanted to do was to get back to the hotel room for a warm bath, nice tea and good sleep. “This is a tough industry. Only for the hustlers and hustlers don’t sleep,’’ Nolu said, her voice and words piercing through my private thoughts.