Serenity now: the story of Kombis

by Sarah Golden

I walk to the kombi depo to catch a van.  The site is packed with booths loaded with food and housewares with energetic vendors who give the place the feel of a carnival.  Drivers pack their passengers into vans that drip into lanes like a diagram of drugs entering the central nervous system.

The kombis belong to the drivers so they take artistic liberties. Often bumper stickers line the walls with phrases like “Thank God I’m a black man,” “Knowing me doesn’t mean you don’t pay,” “Women are like roads; the more curves the more dangerous” and “Don’t rush me – you’re late, not me.”

They bump music. You don’t understand the gravity of a song with the chorus “you can’t keep the black man down” until you’ve heard it as the only white person packed among solemn black faces bobbing to the beat, as you ping between BMWs and Audis with white drivers in post-apartheid South Africa.

But sometimes, those times I’m in a hurry usually, these kombi drivers are infuriating.

A couple of days ago, I forgot my external hard drive and left to retrieve it. I got into a kombi to return to work (for which I am now spectacularly late) and we pulled out of the depo. As soon as we were outside, the driver pulled over and called his “executive door opener” on his phone. And then we waited. And waited. And waited.

My blood pressure was rising. There was a constant line of kombis, there was no reason I had to be on this one. I repeated to myself the country’s mantra, “serenity now, serenity now.” I looked around. People were calm, texting on their cell phones, looking around. I was the only person who appeared upset.

Kombis would never happen in the United States. They are a fleet of vans that speed along defined routes in Cape Town picking up people. Five rand should get you where you want to go.

They’re a two-man operation: the driver and a money collector who clutches a dirty bag rattling with coins and hangs his head out the window, yelling their destination at pedestrians. The collector, called a gaatjie (which must be Xhosa for executive door opener) also has the task of determining the next stop and telling the driver.

For the most part, this dangerous, unregulated system is ace. They make their money in quantity of passengers, so they weave about the crowded streets as though laws do not apply and robots are optional (robots are what they call traffic lights). They also fulfill a role in an impoverished city with inadequate public transportation.

Yesterday, on the way home I caught a kombi that seemed determined to fill the van before returning to the depo. They come to a stop next to each pedestrian, regardless of which side of the road they were on, and yell “You! In here?!”

Once again, my blood pressure is going up. I think, “If they want to get on, they’ll let you know. You will not persuade someone to go to Cape Town.”

They stop in the street and throw the car in reverse – during rush hour – to trail pedestrians. “CAPE TOWN!” the executive doorman yells as we inch next to them.

I am late for a meeting. I am annoyed. No one else appears bothered. If time is relative, it would seem people here have lots of it.

The door opener gets out and stands on a corner, yelling at people up the block. “CAPE TOWN! CAPE TOWN!” He yells as he points to the kombi. This goes on for five interminable minutes. I am livid. I should have walked. Even other people are getting annoyed.

“Leave him,” I suggest to the driver.

“I can’t. He has my money,” he answers.

The door opener finally gets back in.  I give him the stinkiest eye I can. I don’t think it translated.

I wonder how many times must this happen before I no longer chant, “serenity now.” Rumor has it the chant leads to insanity later.

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