Sunday, 26 December 2010

A question of voice

I recently came across this article about 'taxi queens' in South Africa. It's not something that is talked about much although it is a reasonable wide-spread and well-known phenomenon. In South Africa, mini-bus taxis are probably the primary form of public transport. They're cheap, cash-based, pick up and drop passengers as and when they please (in spite of efforts to set up effective, regulated taxi ranks) and are general cheap-and-nasty. Thanks to a largely under-developed public transport industry, however, most commuters don't have a huge amount of choice but to use taxis - and to use the taxi that is leaving next, on pain of losing their spot in the seemingly never-ending queue. 'Taxi queens' are (generally young) women selected by taxi drivers to sit up front. The girls get free rides and gifts from the economically powerful (relative to others) taxi drivers and the drivers (generally) get to have their way sexually with as many pretty young girls as they like. This kind of transactional sex is not limited to the taxi industry but is particularly common in situations like this, partly thanks to the bizarre spatial-development legacy of Apartheid.

What struck me about this article was not any of this. Having worked in youth HIV prevention, I was aware of the phenomenon, although it is nice to see it being reported. What struck - and bothered - me was the fact that nowhere in the article, not once, did any young girl have a voice. The writer spoke to experts, ordinary people, taxi drivers, guardtjies but no girls. The assertion is made, quite blatantly, that the root of this problem is a society where women do not have the right to a voice, where men are allowed to do as they please with young girls. An effort is even made to explain why these girls make the choices they do. But at no point are the 'taxi queens' allowed to speak for themselves. They remain, throughout, victims of a system, a culture, a patriarchal system. They are subjects of the story rather than actors with some sort of role in determining their own fate.

This is not to say that the expert voices in the article, or the suggestions of the writer, are necessarily invalid. There may be reasons for the omission - an attempt to maintain privacy? the difficulty of getting people to talk? It just seems ironic that a story lamenting the victimisation and objectification of these girls as sexual objects (rather than active agents) neglects to provide a platform for them to claim their own voices and explain the decisions they make. One wonders if the story would read differently were the young women involved given the respect of agency and voice?

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