Taxi talk

I have been in South Africa for less than a week — I arrived in Johannesburg bright and early Sunday morning — but I’m already smitten with this country. From the stylish city dwellers to the diverse neighborhoods to South Africans’ pride, this place has an energy in the air. I am so happy to know I will be in the country until August, living in and learning from this unique culture.


I am someone who gets easily obsessed with new people and places, whether it be a musician I stumble upon at a local show or a tasty restaurant I find in the area. After I make such a discovery, I can’t stop talking about it and usually take to the internet to find out more about the artist or venue or project. And I’m sure it will be no different in South Africa. So, each week I plan to focus my blog posts on my latest South African obsession. This week, it’s the nation’s mini-bus taxis and the work of Susan Woolf.

Here, a main mode of transportation for many citizens is in white mini-bus taxis. It’s true that taxi transportation is common in most big cities, but there’s something unique about this country’s taxis. In South Africa, these taxi minibuses have routes, and the drivers and riders of these vehicles have their own hand sign language to indicate these routes: A rider wishing to hop in a taxi makes a certain hand sign as a taxi approaches to indicate the direction or area to which he or she is going and then the driver gestures back to show where the taxi is heading. The fact that there is this whole taxi hand sign language — which differs from city to city — that people use every day to get from here to there fascinated me.

Susan Woolf Taxi Hand Signs

Turns out it fascinated artist Susan Woolf too. On Wednesday, when we visited the Wits Art Museum at the University of the Witwatersrand, we saw her work, which uses these taxi drivers’ hand gestures. Woolf, who is working toward her PhD at Wits, studied this gestural taxi language and then turned the gestures into graphics for the blind. I was immediately struck by the design of her graphics. (I am a journalism major specializing in graphic design, so almost anything related to design has me hooked. Get ready for more design-related posts in the future.) They are bold, geometric and remind me of the drawings of many of history’s indigenous groups. How neat for an artist to study local culture in this way and then use her findings to create something useful. Find out more here.


One thought on “Taxi talk

  1. Fascinating! It almost sounds like a form of sign language? Sounds as if the driver has a pretty tough job – trying to drive while hand-signaling AND looking for them, too!

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