Driving Messrs Boucher, Burger... and 'Mr Mean'

2016-10-04 11:40
John Van Diemen (Tammy Petersen, News24).

John Van Diemen (Tammy Petersen, News24).

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Cape Town - When you set foot in John van Diemen’s cab, you will get more than just a safe trip to your destination.

"I like to think of myself as a driving force," one of Cape Town’s oldest taxi drivers quips from behind the wheel.

"When you get in my car, you will get a mix of entertainment, friendly conversation, and a history lesson you will never forget."

Van Diemen, 69, has spent most of his life on the road, having worked as a driver for a Cape Town clothing manufacturer since the age of 20.

When he retired less than a decade ago, he used part of his R100 000 payout to buy "the most beautiful car on the road".

"Suzy was a 1974 Chevrolet, a real classic. A dealership in Parow wanted R25 000 for her, but I could only afford R20 000. But she was meant to be mine and the deal went through. That girl was my pride and joy."

A friend in the taxi industry suggested to Van Diemen that he try and make a living off his now 42-year-old "beauty", but when he applied for a permit, the taxi board turned down his application because of the car’s age. 

"But I went back to them and explained she was not a skedonk. She was old, but classy. When they saw my car, they gave me a two-year permit."

John van Diemen with a passenger ready for a ride in Suzy, the 1974 Chevrolet. (Supplied)

Van’s Taxis operated in and around Cape Town and Van Diemen has a photo album filled with photos sent to him from tourists he has ferried around while they were on holiday.

The widower, who has been driving since he got his licence at 18, joined Uber two years ago. 

To comply with Uber’s rule for drivers to use only modern vehicles, he swopped Suzy for a 2014 Nissan Almera, which his son bought for him.

The great-grandfather from Lentegeur, in Mitchells Plain, has a rating of 4.8 stars, putting him among the best Uber drivers in the city.

Van Diemen believes in giving his passengers "a lekker Cape Town experience".

Dressed in smart pants, shiny shoes and a waistcoat, he cuts an impressive figure next to his wheels.

"I am a professional driver, so I need to look the part,” he says, bashfully. "And this is my equipment, so she needs to always look her best. I wash her every day, no matter what."

His photo album includes photos with local celebrities who have used his cab over the years.

"I have spoken politics to a Member of Parliament and music with Randall Abrahams from Idols," he boasts.

His favourite passenger is former Proteas cricketer Mark Boucher, although former Springbok rugby player Schalk Burger comes a close second.

"They’re nice guys. Good people," he says fondly.

Idols’ Mr Mean is also not a bad guy, Van Diemen insists.

"He is just a little misunderstood. He’s a bit quiet, but he’s lekker to speak to if you strike up a chat."

A selfie with his favourite passenger, Proteas cricketer Mark Boucher. (Supplied)

Keeping up with current affairs

When he isn’t deep in conversation with his passengers, Van Diemen is tuned in to the radio to keep abreast of current affairs.

"What’s happening at our universities is very sad. But someone needs to listen to these youngsters – the poor can’t be punished for not being able to afford tertiary education. How will anyone rise above poverty if they don’t have opportunities?" he asks.

The father of three had a difficult childhood and circumstances forced him to drop out of school in Standard 6.

"But I read to make up for my lack of formal education. The past is especially important to me, as it tells the story of where we come from.

"Cape Town has a very rich history. Did you know it took the slaves 13 years to build the Castle of Good Hope and that Strand Street was originally part of the ocean?"

As he drives through the streets of the CBD, he points out various landmarks, explaining each one’s significance. 

"I know this city like the back of my hand. Every part of it. I don’t often use my GPS, because I know where almost every street is."

Van Diemen is a courteous driver, waving as motorists driving in the wrong lane ask to cut in.

"I believe in respecting other people on the road. We all have places to go, people to see. It doesn’t mean we have to turn into monsters behind the wheel," he says.

"I am especially careful when I have passengers with me, because they are putting their lives in my hands. It’s my responsibility to give them a pleasant journey and get them to their destination in one piece. It’s something I take very seriously."

His biggest irritations are people who drive while using their cellphones, and those who crawl along at 60km/h in a 120km/h zone.

Van Diemen is one month shy of his 70th birthday, but believes he still has many more kilometres to add to his clock.

"My secret to a long life is simple: smile and stay positive. When faced with negativity to your left, indicate and turn right instead," he jokes.

Read more on:    cape town  |  transport  |  good news

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