Like many fellow Capetonians, I find much wrong with Johannesburg. The traffic lights don’t work; the people put ice in their red wine; electricity fails even more often than in Cape Town; there are potholes everywhere.
But unlike many Capetonians, I love Joburg, and I love visiting there. I find much to admire. The people, black and white, are friendlier; the restaurants are better and cheaper (I often find the fish fresher in Joburg than in Cape Town); the weather is the best in the world. But the most astonishing benefit of Joburg, which amazes me and which I don’t understand, is Gautrain.
Why is Gautrain so marvellous? Why hasn’t the ANC managed to wreck it, as they have every other successful enterprise in the land?
Last week I was waiting at Rosebank Gautrain station thinking in wonder about this. The underground staircase approaches to the platform were clean, safe, well-lit and inviting. The automatic ticket machines worked well and had clear instructions. The platforms were spotless, with not one speck of litter anywhere. There were clear, informative signs explaining train schedules and fares, and also explaining rather sternly the somewhat fascist rules on Gautrain, which I thoroughly approve of. You are not allowed to smoke or eat or drink in the trains or on the platforms. Good. A woman was arrested a year or so ago for chewing gum on the platform. Good.
The timetable said that a train from the south (from the Park direction) was due to arrive at the same time as a train from the north (the Pretoria direction). A minute before the scheduled time, I saw the lights of each train nearing. The noses of the two trains crossed each other in exactly the middle of the platform. Both trains stopped on the second they were scheduled to. I had thought this sort of precision was possible only in Japan. I was wrong. But why was I so wrong?
Inside the train, it was pristine. None of the seats were damaged. All of the passengers were well-behaved. Nobody put their feet on the seats. I love trains and I loved watching the highveld countryside flashing past my Gautrain window. I gloated as the train sped past the slow-moving cars on the congested Ben Schoeman freeway. The fares seem reasonable to me, unless you are travelling to or from the airport. From Pretoria to Sandton at peak times is R81, off-peak R65.
I was brought up in the coastal town of Fish Hoek, about 30 km south of Cape Town. A lovely railway, completed in 1890, runs from Simonstown to Cape Town, passing beautiful sea views, with a stop at Fish Hoek. As twelve-year-old boys, we often took the train, unaccompanied, to Cape Town to see shows, and came back after eleven o’clock at night, all in perfect safety. The trains were safe, cheap, clean and reliable. At Cape Town station, a big mechanical notice board gave you the times and platform numbers of all trains to all destinations; it worked well. If the railway was now working as well as it did then in the 1950s, I should use it all the time. It would be much better than road. But I never use it. The ANC, through PRASA, has wrecked it. The last time I dared to used it, a few years ago, I was terrified. People have been robbed and murdered on the train. The train was filthy, with ripped up seats and graffiti everywhere. Some of the doors didn’t close, and passengers dangled out of them. None of the schedules worked. You never knew when any train would come, if at all. At rush hour there were so few trains that the passengers were squashed together in the carriages and some clung onto the couplings between them. Apparently there was an attempt last year to improve the service, but I have been too scared to try it. The other railway lines in Cape Town, serving poorer people in the townships, are far worse.
The ANC has wrecked all the other commuter railways in Gauteng. It has also wrecked SAA. I have been flying SAA for forty years and have always enjoyed it; I have never had a bad experience with SAA as I’ve had with BA and Virgin; it has always been excellent. But the ANC has bankrupted it. It has also ruined Eskom, Transnet and all municipalities it gets hold of. It has ruined state healthcare and now plans to ruin private healthcare too, through the National Health Insurance (NHI); it is determined to make private hospitals run like the state hospitals in the Eastern Cape. It has ruined state education for most black children, and now seems trying to infect and demoralise private education too. But it has not managed to take over and ruin Gautrain. Surely by now, you would think, the ANC High Command (or whatever it is called) would have sent in a Dudu Myeni or a Malusi Gigaba to loot and transform and wreck Gautrain? They haven’t managed to do so. What is Gautrain’s secret of success?
The Gautrain project was announced in 2000. It was to be a Public Private Partnership, between Gauteng Province (not the National Government) and the Bombela Concession Company, itself a partnership between local and foreign private companies. The main civil contractor was Murray and Roberts. Work began in 2006 and was completed in 2011. It is said to have cost about R25 billion. Given the scale and complexity of this mega-project, this sounds like good construction time and a reasonable price. I should be interested to know the current costs, including debt repayments, compared with the cash inflow.
Was Gautrain successful because the public interest came from the province, not the central state? Could the Western Province under the DA be a partner in a similar railway system for Cape Town and its airport? Or was it successful because of a very tight and wise contract by Bombela? Did that contract shield Gautrain from the looting and corruption of the ANC, which has ruined most of our infrastructure, including most railways? Perhaps someone from Bombela could tell us how they did it.
Gautrain has its critics. The SA Communist Party (SACP) criticised it for being public transport serving the rich. Marxists believe that public transport should only serve the poor, while the rich communist elite should use private transport. The rich leaders of the SACP – the “Vanguard of the Revolution” – only use expensive private transport: shiny new Mercedes, big black BMWs, that sort of thing. When Lenin got his Marxist famine going in 1922, and human body parts were for sale as food in markets, he himself used to be driven through Moscow in a Rolls Royce to demonstrate his revolutionary leadership. Blade Nzimande follows his example.
My visits to Joburg have been transformed by Gautrain. I used to fly to Lanseria Airport (much nicer than Joburg airport and not named after the dreadful man who approved of necklacing working class people while sending his own children to expensive private schools in England). I then took a rented car. Now I fly to Joburg, try not to look at the shameful statue at the airport, and take Gautrain to my nearest destination, and walk.
I couldn’t believe Gautrain would actually be built. When it was built, I was amazed at how good it was but could not believe it would continue to be good. Eleven years later, I am amazed that it is still as good as on the day it opened, and has been perfectly maintained and operated. If South Africa can get this so right, why can’t we get other things right?
The views of the writer are not necessarily those of the Daily Friend or the IRR.