A few years ago I relocated to Pretoria. I only had one friend who happened to use the Metrorail train strictly and being new to the place I followed suit. I found it to be a very novel experience, especially since I’m from Mahikeng where the only form of public transport is taxis. Apart from that it cost me R3.50 a single trip compared to the then R10 I’d have to pay in taxi fare. I loved the experience and still do — the group of young men playing cards, the elderly man preaching, the people enthusiastically discussing politics and the occasional young woman chatting about how her partner is eventually going to start cheating because she leaves so early and arrives so late. Like public hospitals, the train is where you get to hear the dominating narrative of ordinary people.
But within a week I discovered things about the train that bothered me. It would come late or not show up at all, with no announcements made to the waiting passengers. Trains would get stuck (and still do) while en route and passengers would have to wait — a wait that could easily extend to hours.
Travelling to Johannesburg from Pretoria by train costs R10, which is currently R25 less than the current taxi fare. Many in Pretoria work in Johannesburg or attend an institution of higher learning there. As such they depend on the train and many people use more than one train.
About three or four weeks back the train’s door didn’t open. We watched in horror as people missed their stops and others frantically clawed at the door trying to get inside. At one of the stops some of the young men jumped on between the carriages. A lady, who seemed older than my mother, did the same. Her skirt got hooked on something and she started to fall back when two young men pulled her up, she was hurt. The indignity of it all is what angers me most. That people had to beg for a service that enables economic productivity on their part. Upon arrival the doors “miraculously” opened and angry commuters took on the driver who they accused of not opening the doors.
It’s been reported that a Metrorail protester recently “told transport department deputy director general Maria du Toit that commuters would resort to drastic actions if the train service in Pretoria did not improve”. He then went on to say that if their demands were not responded to by March 28 the Gautrain would be burnt.
I’ve used the Gautrain but have had to keep it limited to when it’s urgently needed. A single trip from Pretoria to Johannesburg costs what would be five trips using the Metrorail. The R135 to the airport compared to the R24 by taxi further proves just how exclusive a service it is — something reserved for the few that can afford it and the majority are shoved into the failing Metrorail system. Every time I use the service I think about the money I could have used not only on my children but also the other people I support financially. Beyond this I’m also painfully aware of the huge contrasts in service between the Gautrain and Metrorail. There’s a point where the tracks lie adjacent to each other and those crammed like sardines can see the Gautrain whizz past so it’s no surprise the Gautrain is now threatened.
I’ve overheard discussions about this were protesters were labelled “violent thugs” and worse. To label this as thuggery is to overlook the thuggery of expecting people to passively accept what is clearly an inferior service. What is violent in this situation is that people are expected to passively accept the indignity of our mothers being forced to throw themselves on trains and our fathers, brothers and sisters clawing at doors. It’s absurd that paying customers get an inferior service that is carried out as if they are being done a favour.
A failing, low-cost transport system has many implications for the passengers. Trains not arriving on time or at all means people have to wait longer for the next one or worse spend money they don’t have on an alternative. It means people lose time with their families. It costs people their jobs and students their exams in a country already riddled with a high unemployment rate.
President Jacob Zuma has himself said that “problems at the passenger train service Metrorail were detrimental to South Africa’s economic growth and development” — something clearly asserted in vain.
Burning the Gautrain is no solution but neither is having your dignity infringed upon every time you use Metrorail. Until that form of violence is addressed the threat of violence it generates will without a doubt continue.