THS. Blind Shape System
Millions of commuters all over South Africa use taxi hand signs as a way of indicating their intended destination to the over 15 000 taxi drivers in the country. South Africa’s public bus services have remained fairly undeveloped, as a result of the implementation of apartheid and a system of racial separation in 1948. The result has been a private but organised taxi transport sector operating many commuter routes within Gauteng.
For eleven years until 2004, my art studio was in Braamfontein on the top floor of a warehouse. My route home every afternoon was along Louis Botha Avenue. You have to have your wits about you to drive on Louis Botha Avenue, as hundreds of minibus taxis driving north and south weave in and out of traffic at will, hooting in perpetual ‘beeps’ to attract the commuters’ attention. Taxi drivers stop any place at all on the road, double park, ignore no-go areas and yellow lines or block the flow of traffic for as long as it takes to pick up passengers along the way. I became increasingly aware of the many people gesturing to the taxi drivers with different hand signs, not only on Louis Botha Avenue, but all over the city. I was curious that such an obviously successful travel language, an intrinsically South African form of interaction existed. I wondered how many signs there were, when and by whom these signs were learned and communicated. Had the destinations and hand signs been documented? Why had this silent taxi sign language been adopted – yet taken for granted by so many different travelers? Are these taxi hand signs a curiosity for people who have their own means of transport? Do motorists even notice others signaling?
I wondered if taxi hand signs constitute a language. How does this form of communication compare to other established gestural languages, like sign language? I wondered if blind people took taxis and knew that commuters were using hand signals to alert taxi drivers. I thought it would be a fascinating investigation for a social arts project and I began to record on paper some of the hand signs I was seeing. My art has always had a community aspect to it and as usual I began my research hardly knowing where to begin or where it would lead. My first objective was to determine and document all the taxi hand signs and their associated destinations, while the more interesting aspects of the phenomenon of Taxi hand signs would be gleaned through a broader and deeper research strategy. And so began a process that has taken several years.
In 2004 our family home was being renovated and I finally acquired my own art studio. I photographed the builders on the property who allowed me to photograph my first taxi hand signs and their corresponding destinations. I also took photographs of the torn, worn shoes and yellow plastic builders’ gloves they left behind every day, strategically placed on steel reinforcement poles, only to be worn again on subsequent workdays. The shoes and gloves spoke volumes about the life of each owner, histories I would never know. However the images of the yellow gloves on a pole had a certain lightness and humor that was to shape my ideas for representing the Taxi hand signs from the very first.
There appeared to be no other documentation on taxi hand signs when in late 2004 I approached Phillip Jordaan at SABWA (South African Blind Workers Association – then known as the South African Council for the Blind), to see if he felt that my designs of taxi hand signs for blind people was a value worth pursuing. He required graphic renditions of the shapes in a program that the relief printer could interpret. Jordaan’s translation of the graphics to dotted shapes on computer made the transference to tactile shapes on paper through the relief print machine possible. From then onwards I developed the shapes for the blind, tested and reshaped under the guidance of Wellington Pike, Johannes Dube and some of their blind musician friends. Pike was the blind guide for Willem Boshoff’s art library The Blind Alphabet. As initiator and project manager of the exhibition entitled South African Art to Atlanta: Common and Uncommon Ground,
I continued to record gloved taxi hand signs on paper, enquiring from virtually any taxi commuter whom I met which sign they used to go where. In February 2005 I had my first arranged interview with a taxi driver from the Taxi Association DORJOLTA, Simelane Zeblon. In 2006 I made an appointment with Simphiwe Ntuli from the City Council to show him the prototypes of what I then referred to as the étaxi handbook and blind étaxi handbook. No progress was made with the Council despite further meetings.
Most constructive was the reception and guidance from Eric Motshwane , the chairman of the GJRTC . He introduced me to Patric Impepi and Shirley Khunou who both in their own separate capacities were able to guide me as to where to go and who to speak to in terms of taxi hand sign information and corresponding destinations. Both Impepi and Khunou became key respondents in my research endeavours. They advised me and on occasions accompanied me into various townships to meet people in the taxi industry. In 2006 I had an appointment to meet the chairman of the Witwatersrand Taxi Association, Rams Morate. I also met Mr Skosana, the chairman of the Faraday Taxi Association on three occasions with eighteen of his taxi Squad car members, Q marshals and executives. I photographed each driver who showed me the hand sign and corresponding destination of his route. Few of these people spoke English. Khunou from the GJRTC came with me on our first meeting and explained my intentions in Xhosa, Sotho and Zulu. I am currently working with three researchers who collectively speak several African languages. They photograph hand signs, take notes, translate and transcribe interactions with respondents during fieldwork.
My research has thus far taken place in the taxi ranks in Alexander Township, Soweto, Roodepoort, Sandton, Randburg, Metro Mall in Bree Street, and other places in Gauteng. As mentioned above, Impepi, chairman of the Taxi Liaison Committee and dispute manager of all the government taxi associations and Top Six Taxi Associations in Soweto met me on several occasions throughout the two years, allowing me to record his life history. By 2007 I had produced a book for the libraries with taxi hand signs and destinations for sighted and blind people. I had developed tactile shapes which coded for the taxi hand signs and could easily be read by blind people. Armed with a portfolio of Gouache paintings, cartoons, street sculpture designs and three full folders of research material I wondered how I could proceed in a meaningful way with this social arts endeavour.
There appeared to be parallels in the research and the social, community-based art investigation with aspects of anthropological exploration. Anthropological methodology and transcription would provide a more accurate framework for the research. The gestalt from the experiences and knowledge gained in the field would augment the findings of the taxi hand signs as a specific South African cultural phenomenon and allow for a more broadly communicative outcome in further encouraging an understanding between different sectors of the community.
After three years of working on a social interventionist art project outside of any institution, I published the first book in South Africa in 2007 on Taxi hand signs and their associated destinations. The next book, Taxi hand signs Book for the Blind, was launched on 30 September 2009 at a joint exhibition showcasing the taxi hand signs tactile language for the blind and l’Afrique featuring the Maria Stein Lessing collection, at Museum Africa. An educational component of workshops corresponded with the South African Post Office launch of the taxi hand signs on the South African National commemorative Stamp for 2010.
A set of ten stamps and two first edition envelopes was launched at the Standard Bank Art Gallery on 29 January 2010. The stamps represent two ‘firsts’, the first Taxi hand signs on a stamp, and the first use of thermography as a process on a South African stamp, resulting in taxi hand signs shapes raised in relief on the stamp for blind people to interpret without using Braille. The Stamps were voted 5th most Important Stamp in