Business, Economics and Jobs

Wanderlust: the taxi queens of South Africa


Editor's note: Wanderlust is a regular GlobalPost series on global sex and relationship issues written by Iva Skoch, who is now traveling the world writing a book on the subject.

CAPE TOWN, South Africa — In some of the roughest neighborhoods of Cape Town, as minivan taxis line up to pick up kids and take them to school in the morning, drivers or their assistants routinely select a pretty school girl — some as young as 12 years old — who would be their “queen” for the day.

She'll sit in the passenger seat, act as eye candy and be in charge of the stereo, which is widely considered to be a high-status gig.

Once declared taxi queen material, the girl is allowed to ride the minibus for free, saving the equivalent of about $1 a day, not an insignificant amount of money for children from impoverished urban neighborhoods. The girls may feel indebted, which is about the point where the problems with seemingly mutually beneficial “transactional relationships” begin to unfold.

Howard, 41, who refused to give his last name because of fears of gang retaliation, said the relationship between drivers and taxi queens is based on a simple formula. “The drivers are used by the girls to get free rides and the girls are used by taxi drivers for sex. Everyone uses everyone,” he said. “Life is a vicious cycle.”

Very little academic research exists about taxi queens in South Africa, yet experts agree that the cross-generational nature of these relationships makes it a problem of massive proportions. In the country’s latest HIV/AIDS report, inter-generational sex was highlighted as one of the main sources of HIV transmission in the country, said Anna Strebel, a gender and sexuality researcher.

“Young women have the highest rate of infection,” Strebel said. “Their concern is mainly about getting pregnant, not about AIDS, even among university students, which is staggering.”

Strebel recently interviewed a large number of taxi queens in the Western Cape area for a study. She was surprised to find how widespread the practice of a transactional relationship between older drivers and young girls was. “Wherever there are taxi drivers, it exists,” she said.

While girls from poor families might engage in the practice, sometimes referred to as “survival sex,” to get essentials such as food and free rides, other girls do it to be able to afford designer clothes. Strebel said the phenomenon isn’t linked directly to poverty. Still, anecdotal evidence suggests the term was coined in Mitchell’s Plain, one of Cape Town’s poorest and most crime-ridden neighborhoods.

Elaine Salo, director of the Institute for Women's and Gender Studies at the University of Pretoria, said taxi queens emerged when minibus taxis became popular after the apartheid-era bus boycotts, sometime in the 1980s, and the transactional nature of the relationship between adolescent girls and older taxi drivers gave practical benefits to both parties involved.

Today, the term “taxi queen” is considered derogatory because it’s now generally agreed the practice stigmatizes and exploits women, most of whom are too young to make informed choices.

Howard, who used to work as an assistant driver and fare collector, or “guardtjie” in Afrikaans, explained the process by which a schoolgirl becomes a taxi queen without a speck of emotion.

“The key is getting them hooked on tik,” he said. Tik is what South Africans call the methamphetamine Americans refer to as “crystal meth,” and since taxi drivers are widely known to be the city’s most prominent dealers of “straw,” or hits of tik packaged in cut up, inch-long transparent straws, the opportunities for school girls to sample the drug are endless.

Before things turn ugly, however, the young women enjoy a period of intense courtship, which can arguably be just as addictive as tik.

“You don’t have to pay today for the bus, sweetheart. It’s on me,” Howard said he or his driver used to tell the schoolgirls, inviting them to sit up front and asking them what they were doing later. Some girls got lured quickly by the status that becoming a taxi queen brings, especially if it is a new car with a loud stereo system. But many girls were well aware of the slippery slope and rejected free fares and romantic proposals.

According to Howard, however, they had little chance.

“Once they set their eyes on somebody, drivers are very persistent,” Howard said. “They know where the girl lives and where she goes to school, so they wait for her to fetch her every day and they bring her presents until she agrees.”

The presents are simple, but effective: mobile phone vouchers, beer, flowers. It typically takes only a few days before the relationship turns sexual. Once that happens, the driver is quickly onto another girl. In the community of taxi drivers, it is fashionable to regularly upgrade taxi queens and bring their favorite ones to parties at the end of the week.

Howard said that some girls hold out too long. That’s when the white pills he calls “Rescue” come into play. “They make them sleepy,” he said. Because sleepy means obedient, it makes it easier to get them addicted to tik. Once hooked, they might become dealers or prostitutes to support the habit.

Howard estimates that during his three-year stint in the taxi business, he had sex with close to 1,000 girls. Some did it voluntarily, some when they were asleep, others in exchange for beer, sometimes half a beer, or a straw.

Patrik Solomons, director of Molo Songoglolo, a children's rights foundation, said teenage girls are often sexually abused by taxi drivers or their assistants. But many don’t see it as abuse because they were raised in a culture where violence, sexual abuse and injustice are the norm.

“Teenagers don’t just wake up one day and think 'I think I’ll become a taxi queen.' Children are groomed into these scenarios,” he said, adding that some teens are encouraged by their families to get as many material gifts as possible and be friendly with taxi drivers — who are typically gang members — to assure gang protection for all of them.

And there’s no shortage of gangs in the Western Cape. Out of the dozens of gangs that operate in the Cape Flats, one of the most dangerous neighborhoods, the most notorious are the Hardlivings, Nice Time Kids, Cisco Yukkies, Jesters, Scorpions, Naughty Boys, School Boys, Sad Lives and the most feared of all, the Americans. Because minivan taxis are a cash business, subsidized by drug sales, it’s one of the most effective ways to launder money and fund gang activity.

The roots of the taxi queen phenonenon, however, go beyond economics and crime. Solomons said that in South African society, men are given a license to do anything they please. 

“These kids develop very strange ideas of what love is,” he said. “Teenagers are very vulnerable. Like everywhere else in the world, teenagers here like to be treated as adults. And taxi drivers are treating them as adults.”

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