Geoffrey Sello Ramohlola sets out alone from his single-room shack. The light cast by the grid of dull gold street lamps is all that interrupts the darkness. Ramohlola has lived here, on the western edge of Atteridgeville, with his wife Lucia since 1999.
It will be another hour before the sun rises. The sky is the ruddy colour of oil – more brown than black – and the summer air in Tshwane is sticky, even this early in the morning.
It isn’t long before Ramohlola’s long strides are matched by others emerging from the darkness, greeting one another with muffled laughter before joining the morning march of railway commuters to the Saulsville Metrorail Station.
Some of the growing column break away and hook a shortcut across the courtyard of a hostel compound, its residents still asleep, before arriving at the station. It has been half an hour since Ramohlola left home. The turnstiles are not working, so tickets must be manually checked by railway security guards.
The work train from Atteridgeville
The stationary train on the platform is missing most of its windows. If it rains, passengers must huddle near the centre of their carriage or, as Ramohlola says, grinning, “bring an umbrella on the train”.
The fresh scent of commuters making their way to work or school – toothpaste, body lotion and cologne – fills the carriage. Two Unisa security guards sit shoulder to shoulder, yawning and wiping the sleep from their eyes. A lanky high school pupil in a blue peak cap finishes his homework, scribbling neat, slanted cursive notes on the “impact of globalisation”.
The train lurches slowly from the platform before rattling and swaying through Atteridgeville on its way to Pretoria’s central station on Bosman Street.
The township, which is only now showing signs of coming to life, was established during the 1930s. African residents from neighbourhoods such as Marabastad, which was, at the time, a multicultural hotbed of resistance, were forced into Atteridgeville during efforts to stamp out “black spots” from well-located urban areas. Many Atteridgeville residents would later provide the cheap labour demanded by the Iron and Steel Corporation of South Africa, which first tapped steel from its open-hearth furnace in Pretoria in 1934.
While the state fails, commuters organise
Ramohlola appears younger than his 42 years. “My body seems small, but I am old,” he jokes. He loves his job installing and repairing motorised window blinds, which keeps him on the road often. Just the day before, he drove up north to Polokwane, Limpopo, to install blinds. Now he is en route to Potchefstroom, North West, to do the same. In spite of his demanding travel schedule, Ramohlola says he is feeling “fresh”.
He has been commuting on Metrorail trains for a decade and, like all the passengers New Frame spoke to, he says the train service was once much better than it is now.
It is a sentiment reflected in the State of Safety Report, released by the Railway Safety Regulator (RSR) in 2016/17. The report shows that Metrorail passenger numbers have steadily declined: between 2010 and 2011, passengers travelled more than 12 million kilometres on Metrorail trains; but six years later, that number contracted to fewer than 10 million.
Ramohlola is part of a group of commuters who call themselves the Petition Group. This after they submitted a petition to the RSR on 10 August that attempted to highlight the rot at the Passenger Rail Agency of South South Africa (Prasa) and Metrorail, which has been well-documented in, among others, the Public Protector’s report titled Derailed and leaked reports from National Treasury and law firm Werksmans Attorneys.
The petition pointed to a lack of security on trains, long transit times due to delays, no proper planning and alternative routes, old infrastructure and a lack of communication from Metrorail. It closed with a plea that “the current 20-year plans will not be able to sustain the economy if the country’s workforce is spending its time stuck on trains …”
Responding to the petition, the RSR encouraged the Petition Group to take up the demands that fell outside of its mandate with the transport department. Ishmael Mnisi, the department’s spokesperson, claims that it has no knowledge of the petition and that it should be sent to Prasa instead. This while RSR media and communications head Madelein Williams maintains that the petition was sent to Mnisi’s office on 27 August.
The RSR says it “has directed Prasa to improve … their passenger communication processes to obviate problems that arise as a result of train delays”, but the only thing displayed on information screens at Pretoria central, where Ramohlola waits to catch his connecting train to Germiston, is what Enight Ntsewa, another member of the Petition Group, calls “useless information” comprising advertisements for flu or pain medications, or how to avoid prostate cancer.
In the meantime, many commuters have developed their own informal, but highly effective, system of communicating train schedules: a seemingly endless network of WhatsApp groups of more than 200 members each, where scheduling updates are sent in real time.
As the sun rises, Ntsewa updates one of these groups after the Germiston train has left Olifantsfontein Station: “Hasihambe lolo.” The reply, a familial recognition from a passenger who has just boarded one of the train’s carriages (like most of the WhatsApp group members, Ntsewa has never met them, and most likely never will) is almost immediate: “Thanks, I’m in skeem let’s go.”
Thendo Munyai, 30, is another passenger who depends on the WhatsApp groups. Constantly glancing down at the updates flashing across her screen, Munyai says she cannot afford to be late.
Recent train delays have made her late several times for her shift as a cleaner in a Bedfordview office park, which begins at 7.30am She says getting a letter from Prasa confirming that trains have been delayed, something her bosses now demand, involves a series of bureaucratic hoops that are nearly impossible to jump through.
Ticket to unlimited ride
The familiarity among strangers, both on WhatsApp groups and sitting alongside one another in the carriages, is one of the reasons Ramohlola feels rail is the best form of public transport (the other, and most obvious, is its affordability; he pays R235 for a monthly ticket, which gets him unlimited rides).
But Ramohlola says even that price is too dear, all factors considered. His two children live with their grandmother in Limpopo, and not with him and Lucia, precisely because he spends too much time travelling every day: “They need quality time with family, you know? So what’s the point? They are asleep when I leave and asleep when I get home.”
Ntsewa, who, like Ramohlola, watches the sun rise and set from a train carriage every weekday, is facing a similarly difficult situation. He and his wife are expecting their second child in December, but he is concerned that the time he spends on the train means he will not get to know his newborn.
“What must I do if I have a toddler?” asks Ntsewa. “They must know me. But they won’t know me.”
The train sidles past Emperor’s Palace’s garish façade before snaking its way through the shacklands, industrial decay and dirty yellow mine dumps of the East Rand. Eventually Ramohlola arrives at his destination, Driehoek Station in Germiston, shortly after 7am.
By some measure, the tracks that run through Germiston are the most notorious in South Africa, ranking first among areas affected by operational occurrences in 2016/17, according to the RSR. The two-and-a-half hours Ramohlola has travelled this morning, however, are uncharacteristically short. He jokes that this might have been the case because there was a white person on board.
The train home from Germiston
Later that day, after his nine-hour shift, Ramohlola waits at Germiston Station for the train home, looking up and watching more ads on the info screen. An announcement error causes a passing moment of chaos on the platform. The train on Platform 9 is headed for Springs and not Tembisa, as announced. Hundreds of passengers who, moments earlier, fought their way through the throng and on to the carriages must beat a path back on to the platform. It is then announced that the Tembisa train is actually arriving on Platform 10. The passengers lunge forward off Platform 9, dash across the tracks, narrowly avoiding the arriving train before clambering up and on to the correct platform.
On board the Pretoria train, which arrives a short while later, the fresh morning scents have been replaced by that of sweat. A woman leans over and falls asleep on her neighbour’s lap, while another walks into the carriage with a boombox, places it down in front of her, takes her seat then presses play. The dulcet hum of Sepedi gospel washes over the carriage.
Ramohlola arrives home at 8.50pm. He and Lucia will eat “a little bit of pap and vleis” before he boils water, pours it into a basin and covers it with a blanket so that it is still warm when he wakes up at 3am for his bath. He will then make his way once more to Saulsville Station.