Mtuseni hopped online today, told me his day was fine, and then said, “I was just thinkin’.” Uh-oh. That’s one of his usual entry points to a sticky conversation. I told him that sounded dangerous, and shared one of my favorite Dorothy Parker quotes: “Once you get to thinking, it’s hard to stop.”
What he was thinking was that the fare for his taxi commute to school was going up. These aren’t plush New York yellow cab sedans, but the crowded, dangerous, and sometimes illegal minibuses that serve as the primary mode of transport for black South Africans. I worry about him taking them, but really there is no other option.
This is the second time fares have increased. When I asked him why, he said it was the price of petrol. But I told him that world oil prices were declining; in fact, the price of gas in my area dropped 35 cents a gallon in the last few weeks. He said he didn’t know, the fares were just going up.
His mom has always covered the taxi fare to school, and I forget what it costs. But I braced myself for a huge increase that I would have to cover. “It’s always something in South Africa,” I thought. Just when I can breathe a bit and tackle my own bills, there’s another bill down there to pay.
Now Mtuseni is famous for burying the lead of any story. Maybe it’s cultural. Maybe it’s the writer in him who loves spinning a little bit of suspense. But when communicating by text chat — often while multitasking on other work — I’d prefer the main news up front. So I asked him how much the increase would be. He said 4 rand per day. I quickly Googled a currency converter.
R4 is roughly 48 cents.
His monthly commute bill will increase by $10.
Of course this isn’t a problem on my end. But when I asked him what he was “just thinkin'” about in terms of the fares, he said that R4 will be a “critical impact” on his daily routine. And it will be a strain on his mom “since she feeds us all.” Mom earns only R2000 a month… about $240.
I know Mtuseni lives in poverty. I’ve been in his house. I understand. But an extra 50 cents a day putting a strain on a family really makes things clear.
I told him I’ll cover the fare increase in his monthly allowance. He thanked me and told me he didn’t know what to say. I know he feels bad when I have to come to the rescue for money issues. Mtuseni never asks me for anything. He’s very proud.
But sometimes he’s just thinkin’. About four rand.
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