I love riding on the Gautrain. It looks, and feels, like progress. It’s a piece of infrastructure built on the African continent that appeases the capitalist gene hardwired into the left hemisphere of my brain. A physical manifestation of the Africa Rising rhetoric. Look Mom, we CAN look after ourselves!
But there is another, more important reason why I love the Gautrain. It has to do with community. In our strange (read desperate) post-apartheid geographic city set-up, where Black, White and Coloured live here, there and yonder, there is nothing quite like an arterial public transport route to stick everyone on the same escalator. There Gauteng, have a good hard look at yourself – albeit at a predominantly middle-class version thereof.
What else could have brought our pale males to the heart of town, out from their soft suburban shells, and sat them next to mama Theki who works in accounts in Midrand? Certainly not the next Lions fixture at Ellis Park (she’s probably a Bulls fan). No, this incredible feat of service delivery actually delivering a service has given us a chance to see what a microcosm of our country looks like, two decades after turning a newly democratic leaf.
And I’ll tell you what, for the Bryanston and Bedfordview boytjies it certainly has a slightly more colourful tinge than our weekend braai’s might suggest.
As if Operation Transformation could wait any longer. At a time when the news echoes stories of “blackface” and “Fuck white people”, it’s comforting to get out into the real world and find some perspective.
“Hello fellow South African. Would you look at that! I haven’t painted myself darker effectively spitting in the face of hundreds of years of your ancestral slavery. I’m also really glad you haven’t tried to dispossess me of my land on this train ride, under the guise of rectifying historically ill-begotten wealth. Isn’t it amazing how civil everyone seems when they’re not on the news?”
At least that’s how the conversation plays out in my head as I’m waiting for the next train to Park (a four cart train, departing in seven minutes, according to our train hostess over the intercom).
And then there’s the contrasting impression left by the disintegrating skyline of the Joburg CBD, superimposed on your subconscious as you emerge into the ever-rising vantage of Sandton. Dense, bustling streets of little retail versus the beating heart of big business in Africa. Yesterday and today. Today and tomorrow. Both accessible on an eight minute train ride via the hipster haven Rosebank. One can only imagine the possibilities of a Soweto stop wedged into that equation.
For the first time, everyday well-to-do South Africans can glimpse, in real time, the realities of urban decay, urban renewal and urban investment (read four sexy new Sandton structures for our local capitalist monoliths), not to mention the heaving aftereffects of rural-urban migration. Geography teachers everywhere get down on your knees and kiss the toes of your beloved deities – this is a lived case study of city demographic movement.
This is not a social solution to our every problem. Naiveté would suggest there is such a thing. And in many ways the viciously exclusionary pricing model of the service is acting as an economic barricade to the majority of our impoverished populace. It is simply a touch-point. An opportunity to rub shoulders (literally) and spend that one iota of extra time with people a little less like you. If your train rides are anything like mine, invariably you get to chatting about that witty magazine headline, or the shirt that says “I was shot in Joburg”. Or – if you’re really lucky – about the latest budget speech your fellow traveller delivered in Parliament and how they’re holding up against the Zuptanami (yes, Pravin travels Blue-Light-Brigadeless).
If I were the Captain of this Gauteng Ship, and I had to decide how best to spend our tax-payer’s money over the next five years, I’d budget for a few more stations, stretching further South, East and West. Let’s stir that melting pot.
I’d also install a Mugg & Bean On The Go at every exit. Coffee is important too.
Do yourself a favour. Take a trip to Park. Buy a ticket to anywhere. And who knows, you might just be lucky enough to lose a prejudice along the way.