In the book The Bang-Bang Club: Snapshots from a Hidden War, authors Greg Marinovich and João Silva mention a particularly tragic event when press photographer Abdul Sharif is shot and killed during violence they had been covering in the townships.
As the press corps grieved and cursed at the loss of one of their own, Distance, one of the township youths who experienced violence daily and had witnessed his comrades being killed on a regular basis, gave them a piece of his mind.
“I am not sorry your friend Abdul was killed. It is good that one of you dies. Nothing personal, but now you feel what is happening to us every day.”
In 1992, I was present when irate commuters attacked a train driver at a station not far from where President Cyril Ramaphosa was stuck on a train recently for more than an hour.
I have amnesia about the identity of the individuals who attacked the train driver. But I do remember the collective anger and frustration we felt that day when our train collided with a stationary train on the platform at Wintersnest station northwest of Pretoria late that afternoon.
It was a harrowing experience. People crashed against the windows and cried out in fear. Wailing adults writhed in pain.
Same delay, different day
It had been one of countless frustrating days on which the trains were running behind schedule. It was part of our daily adversity as train commuters travelling between Mabopane/Soshanguve and Pretoria. I travelled by train daily between Soshanguve and Silverton as a student, from 1992 to 1994.
What Ramaphosa experienced during his ill-fated election campaign recently – stuck on a train in the middle of nowhere, not knowing the cause of the delay or when or if the train would be moving again – was something we faced daily.
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It continues to be a scourge that commuters suffer. But week after week, they purchase a weekly train ticket because it remains the cheapest mode of transport, as it was back then.
Besides always being late, what added to the deepening frustration was the lack of communication about why the train had stopped and when it would get going again. And so commuters would have to endure an uncertain wait.
Sometimes the brave among the passengers would jump off the train, risking their safety and lives in search of alternative transport. But not everyone had the energy or even the money to follow. All they had was a lunchbox and their weekly ticket, no extra cash.
Cheap and unreliable
We used the train because it was the cheapest mode of transport, not the most convenient or the fastest. We had no other choice. Perhaps that is why the authorities didn’t give a damn. They still don’t.
The trains still don’t run on time. The safety of trains remains a major concern. Accidents continue to claim the lives of commuters. And commuters continue to attack train drivers and trains in frustration. Who is to blame here?
Some years after the incident in which the train driver was attacked, commuters frustrated by trains running late unleashed their collective fury by torching the Pretoria A station.
Burning and destroying infrastructure should be condemned in the strongest possible way. But when the service provider you are paying abuses you on a daily basis and you’re at risk of losing your job or being kicked out of school because of this poor service, collective anger often leads to people losing all sense of logic.
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It was good that the head of state endured the suffering and frustration that thousands of commuters face daily across the country. Nothing personal, but now he knows what it’s like to be stuck on a train, feeling helpless and powerless.
He should thank his gods that the train didn’t derail or ram into another one, as often happens, and that commuters didn’t attack him as the country’s No. 1.
On Tuesday, GroundUp reported that members of the commuter activist group #UniteBehind had blocked the entrance to the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (PRASA) in Cape Town after Ramaphosa launched two new train sets. They were there to protest corruption and mismanagement of the agency.
Out of touch
The truth is that Ramaphosa and his comrades – who are chauffeur-driven to and from their shiny offices, enjoy 24/7 VIP protection and live in gated communities behind electric fences and high walls – are completely out of touch with what citizens endure every day.
More of them should get out there and experience what we do daily, the fear of dying at the sharp end of a knife from a thug high on drugs in the streets of Pretoria or being mugged by a marauding gang in inner-city Joburg or being attacked in your home by a gun-toting gang.
They must be made to remember what they appear to have forgotten: the indignity of relieving oneself in a bucket toilet, constant exposure to dust and noise from the mines, and being assaulted and harassed by racist white farmers in rural dorps. They must get out there and experience the indignity of raising children in a crowded shack settlement and getting up at 2am to be first in the queue at a public clinic or hospital, only to be attended to at noon if you’re lucky.
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Ramaphosa and his high-flying comrades in government are out of touch and that’s why they express shock at something that’s been a regular problem for commuters, even during Nelson Mandela’s presidency.
In fact, the likes of Ramaphosa know all this suffering because they grew up in such communities, perhaps under even worse conditions at the worst of times. But because they are now too comfortable, they assume all of us are. We are not.
What Ramaphosa briefly experienced is a daily reality for students and workers travelling by train.
Back when I was a regular train commuter, everyday people on the train spoke about how they were threatened with dismissal and disciplinary action for always getting to work late.
We students faced the same predicament. It was so bad during exams that we resorted to travelling by taxi in the morning and then taking the train back in the afternoon when a delay had less serious consequences. This, of course, was not an option for many because the cost of a single taxi trip was equivalent to at least six train rides to town.
No one believed the story of trains being late anymore. No one cared to establish for themselves if indeed the trains were always late or if students and workers were simply playing truant and blaming MetroRail.
Hopefully, after his own troubles with MetroRail, Ramaphosa will get to the bottom of this issue with the trains and bring about a lasting solution, because people are losing their jobs and, truly speaking, employers don’t believe the story of trains being late anymore.
No hard feelings Bra Cyril, but it is good that you got stuck on a train.
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