There have been two spectacular changes in my experience of railway journeys in South Africa over the last 60 years, one tragically for the worse, one amazingly for the better.
I was brought up in Fish Hoek, in the Cape Peninsula in the 1950s and 1960s. Fish Hoek has a wonderful setting, ghastly architecture, an alcohol prohibition that has probably caused more alcoholics than anywhere else in South Africa, and a lovely, convenient, reliable railway line running to Cape Town or to Simonstown.
Unfortunately, for the last phrase above, please change “has” to “had”.
The railway was completed in 1890. It should be one of the world’s most pleasing rail journeys, and it was when I was at school. From Cape Town the train runs through the Peninsula, passing through the dormitory towns of people who work in the city, until it reaches the sea at Muizenberg and then follows a glorious coast to Simonstown. As little boys we used to travel the line at all times of day, including coming home from shows in Cape Town at ten o’clock at night. Our parents didn’t worry, nor had they reason to do so. Single women could travel at any time. My father commuted on it most of his working life.
Over the years I have used it occasionally, and felt a deterioration in reliability and security. Friends have told me of being robbed at knifepoint. In 2001, a young man, Leslie van Minnen, was murdered on a train near Kenilworth trying to rescue a friend who was being attacked. Van Minnen’s father started the Rail Commuter Action Group in his memory.
Last November, after many years, I took the train from Claremont to Cape Town to go to parliament. I travelled before nine in the morning. I was shocked. The journey was horrible and frightening. I could not get into the first trains because they were crammed full of passengers, packed in like sardines, hanging out of doors that didn’t close and clinging like rock climbers between the coaches on the couplings between them, exposed to sudden death if they lost their grip. Eventually I managed to squeeze onto a train. I could not sit or move. The coach was filthy, with ripped up seats, windows you couldn’t see through, and litter and graffiti everywhere. I spoke to my fellow passengers, crushed against me. Most were regular commuters. Every one of them said they were scared stiff on the train and only used it because they had to. They said there were violent criminals everywhere.
For the return journey, I went to Cape Town Station and looked at the railway timetable board, which used to be reliable. Half of the trains were cancelled. Most of the rest were “delayed” – with no indication of how long the delay would be. I eventually went onto a platform at random and waited. I saw a movement of people, which I joined towards another platform from which, apparently, my train was departing. I asked someone how she knew. She said, “Somebody told me”.
Cape Town trains have descended into nightmare. There are too few trains because many of them have been burnt to destruction by unknown villains. These vandals remind me of the nihilistic comrades in the 1980s who laid waste to so much of the black townships. I’m told the Simonstown line is paradise compared with the lines to the Cape Flats, Mitchell’s Plain and Khayelitsha. There, passengers are routinely terrorised and murdered; drivers are sometimes assaulted; women are in especial danger; the trains are often hours late and poor workers risk being sacked by their employers because of late-coming. My fellow passengers tell me the final descent has been quite recent, over the last six years or so. It seems that PRASA (Passenger Rail Association of SA) has been captured, looted and wrecked to the advantage of the rich comrades and to the disadvantage of poor commuters.
President Ramaphosa, to his credit, recently took a suburban train journey in Pretoria. He was horrified. He had a tiny glimpse of the suffering of poor black commuters after 25 years of ANC rule.
By contrast, when I fly to Johannesburg, I experience what must be one of the best railways in the world, the Gautrain, which serves richer people. It has transformed my visits to Jo’burg for the better. It is clean, safe, comfortable and super reliable. Have you heard of the extreme punctuality of Japanese trains? I’ve been to Japan and seen it to be true. Gautrain matches Japanese trains.
In the old days I was told that when “they” (meaning black people) took over, things would fall part. Well, Cape Town railways are falling apart but Gautrain is better than anything from the old days.
It seems our government can provide excellent services when it wants to but often it doesn’t want to – especially services for poor people.
1. Because of the ban on lawful alcohol consumption in Fish Hoek, unlawful consumption proliferated. Every sports club became a shebeen, serving cheap booze all around the clock. The police were on the payroll of the boozing community. Alcoholics loved it because there were no restraining hours for drinking. There was a little old lady who used to run campaigns using petitions to “keep Fish Hoek dry”. The alcoholics supported her enthusiastically
2. One of my Fish Hoek friends is Paul Booth, the father of Matthew Booth, who played soccer for South Africa. Matthew is about six foot eight tall. Many years ago he was held up at knife point on a train near Steenberg. They even stole his boots.
3. Leslie van Minnen is another Fish Hoek man. His son was killed on his way home, after a final exam, from Cape Town to Fish Hoek.
4. No woman on her own should ever take a Cape Town train. But poor black women have to.
5. While waiting at Rosebank Gautrain Station, I have watched trains arrive from both directions. If they are due at, say, 09h30, I see them crossing each other in the centre of the station at exactly 09h30. Japan is like this too but I have never seen it anywhere else on Earth.
Andrew Kenny is a writer, engineer and classical liberal
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