Gautrain and Metrorail perpetuate South African inequalities

Several months ago, as the Gautrain pulled up to the Pretoria Station, casually looking to our left, we noticed a mass of people exiting a dirty, dilapidated, and very old train; an image that was abruptly interrupted by a wall. It was a glaring juxtaposition. The Gautrain – new, clean, and well-furnished – was distinctly different from the Metrorail. As we briskly walked off the Gautrain with our fellow commuters making our way to work on an early Tuesday morning, we asked a commuter if he too, had noticed the wall. He said he hadn’t. But shrugging his shoulders, he nonchalantly added, with a hint of complacency, “There are many walls, physical and non-physical, in South Africa.”

The erection of walls in urban South Africa has become the mandatory and accepted intervention in the supposed ‘fight against crime.’ But these walls further entrench the spatial, racial, economic and class segregation borne from the apartheid city. To us, the superimposition of the Gautrain, adjacent to the Metrorail, which is over three decades old and suffering from chronic neglect, is simply another example of the socio-economic disparities that are perpetuated by spatial division, economic and infrastructural exclusion in South Africa.

Metrorail train. Lené le Roux.

We decided to take the Metrorail from Pretoria to Park Station on Youth Day (a national public holiday on 16 June). When we walked onto the Metrorail, after having parted with a mere R10, we noticed a distinct smell. It smelt of food and soiled long distance. As two, young, middle-class women, there was a strong sense that we stood out. We were received by momentary stares, perhaps more a reflection of our own discomfort. A spitting image of poorly maintained subway trains in London or New York in the 1980s, the train was dimly lit, with old steel caged bulbs, which too harkened back to the 1980s. All the passengers were black.

To our surprise, the train left on time; we had read and heard that the trains were known to be notoriously late. It begrudgingly pulled away from the station. Next to us sat a young man, who innocently smiled at us, almost signalling that we could ask all the questions that occupied our minds. He too was taking the Metrorail for the first time. He was shocked when told that it would take close to two hours to arrive at Park Station. He, like us, was used to the 30-minute trip on the Gautrain. To our right was another commuter – a young, animated hospitality student who spent most of the ride boisterously talking about partying. He described the distinction between the Gautrain and Metrorail as the train for the “VIP vs. the public people”.

The Metrorail has been juggled from state entities Transnet, to SARCC, then Spoornet and back to SARCC (which is now PRASA) and there appears to be no real interest to catapult it, let alone the entire national rail system, out of its time warp. Casual conversation with a PRASA train driver revealed the lack of upgrading and maintenance of the engines, brakes and the traffic signalling computer system. It worryingly became clear why we smelt the fumes of screeching brakes and why the train randomly slowed, or came to a sudden halt, midway between stations. While a veteran long distance luxury train driver boasted of being trained in Germany ‘back in the day’ to ensure the safety of ‘precious cargo (white commuters), a Metrorail driver flaunted pushing 150 km/h, breaking the speed limit, when running late. Meanwhile, a female commuter highlighted fears of being robbed or attacked when her train is delayed by up to three hours, forcing her to travel early mornings and late evenings.

We decided to take the Gautrain back to Pretoria – admittedly because the thought of another long ride on the Metrorail was inconceivable. Upon entering the Gautrain, we noticed the proliferation of security officials, something that was not apparent on the other side of the wall. It was clean, with the gleaming digital monitor, in the various official languages, indicating the next station and the ones to follow. The cushioned seats were clean; the train was distinctly quiet – no vendors were trying to sell us peanuts. It was well lit and racially mixed. When we asked another Gautrain commuter if he had ever noticed the wall at the Pretoria Station he immediately said yes. He followed his comment by saying, “look, it’s not apartheid, but its discrimination”. He had also, on occasion, ridden the Metrorail. In his experience, it was unsafe. He had in fact witnessed petty criminal activity first hand. He added that, “the Metrorail is like Soweto, there are people selling things, there are church services”, and with slight disappointment, he added, “the Gautrain is so quiet.”

The apartheid government instituted policies that intentionally defined and designated particular groups to limited spaces, in various ways, including the allocation of public transportation resources. The heritage of the migrant labour system, as the dominant pattern of workers’ employment of the 20th century, continues to leave a lasting impact on contemporary South African society. The trains still travel the same route that was used to collect the labour force from townships such as Mamelodi, Shoshanguve and Soweto, and takes them to key industrial nodes such as Germiston, Kempton Park and the Johannesburg mining belt, just south of the CBD. Paying a higher price for the Metrorail Business Express or the Gautrain allows one to travel to the sanitized, commercial hubs of Gauteng:  Midrand – Sandton – Rosebank – Jo’burg Central.

The idea that rights and dignity can be equated to race, class and monetary value was enshrined in the apartheid code of spatial planning. As such, access to socio-economic opportunity was afforded to those that had it by institutionalised supremacy. The stark distinction between the Gautrain and Metrorail is one example of how economic status and the public services it affords can indoctrinate in us all a sense of superiority or inferiority. Different income groups seem to accept that their right to have access to a safe, reliable public transport system must be bought. Yet, according to our Constitution, all citizens of South Africa have equal right to access socio-economic opportunities.

Twenty years after the demise of apartheid, our country remains vastly unequal. In 2011, we were ranked the most unequal country in the world, according to the World Bank Development Report. Inequality is reflected in space. Power is reflected in the manner in which we share space. The question we should perhaps ask ourselves is what is decent enough and for whom? Are we in fact assigning a different value to each others’ lives? How are we reinforcing difference from our past – today – and how much have we really changed as a society if we don’t notice segregation?

In travelling on both trains we have been forced to realise, even more profoundly than before, how South Africans not only live such substantially different lives in such close proximity to one another – but critically, many of us do so without noticing the experiences of ‘the other’. We should also ask ourselves, as South Africans, if visible and invisible walls do exist between us – what are we doing to ensure that these walls are dismantled?

Lené le Roux is currently a Junior Development Planner working in the private sector. She holds a bachelor degree in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of Pretoria and is a candidate graduate for a master’s in Built Environmentfrom the University of Witwatersrand. Her core interest and professional training thus far encompasses human settlements, socio-economic development and local government.

Helidah Ogude is an economic policy analyst for the South African National Government. A native of South Africa, Helidah grew up in both South Africa and Kenya. Helidah has previously published papers analysing challenges to the consolidation of democracy in various African countries. She holds a master’s in Global Affairs from New York University.


Photo of the Gautrain by flickr user Aquila.


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