My fear of South African taxi drivers goes back to an encounter in my early days in Johannesburg in the early 2000s. I was in a taxi van on Jan Smuts Avenue, going to Braamfontein, in Johannesburg. I needed to be at WITS University by 12.30 for a meeting. It was 11.15, and there was a stop near Braamfontein Centre on Jan Smuts, right across from one of the University entrances. I was confident I would be on time for my meeting, having made this trip countless times before. By the time we got to my stop, I was the only passenger left in the taxi. I asked the driver to please drop me at Braamfontein Centre, to which he responded, ‘yhini hawukhulumi?’
‘I understand, but I can't speak isiZulu’, I said.
‘Mna, angizwa ukhulumani sisi’, (I don't understand what you are saying, sister), he shot back, as he drove past my stop.
I suddenly remembered a Facebook status update by a well-known radio presenter on an English medium radio station, who had posted one morning: ‘Today, I don't feel like speaking English, I am #unableToCan speak today. Akhant.’
As we drove deeper into the Johannesburg CBD towards the notorious Hillbrow precinct, well known to many foreign students as a no-go area, a cold panic started settling in my stomach at not only missing my meeting, but also being stranded in Hillbrow with all its reputed horrors. I begged him to drop me, but he just calmly kept asking why I was speaking English. Was I not Black? He stopped somewhere in Hillbrow, and dropped me off, with a firm word of advice: ‘learn your language!’
When I told my friends about the encounter, they asked me why I hadn't responded in Kiswahili. This bit of wisdom has saved me many taxi crises since. In situations that hover towards an accusation of being a ‘coconut’—black on the outside, white inside—I simply respond in Kiswahili ‘sielewi unachosema’ (‘I don't understand what you are saying’). My response works wonders. The tone of these conversations changes from aggressive to curious.