The Big Read: The official contempt for SA's poor, black people
When David Dao refused to give up his seat on an overbooked United Airlines plane two Sundays ago, nobody could have foreseen the consequences that would follow. Insisting that he had to see patients in his home state of Kentucky the next morning, the doctor clung to his window seat on the flight out of Chicago, Illinois.
Then the unthinkable happened. Security was called and after a violent tussle with the passenger in his economy-class window seat, the medic was dragged off, apparently unconscious, with two teeth missing, a broken nose and concussion.
In an age of instant cellphone cameras, this was going to be a massive public relations disaster for one of the largest airlines in the US. First there were the anguished cries of passengers targeting the security officers. What are you doing? This is wrong! Look at what you did to him!
While the CEO of the airline called Dao "disruptive and belligerent", the company's shares fell by 6.3% - which was a whopping $1.4-billion in real money. Late-night comedians had a field day with United Airlines. Over and over again millions of television viewers would witness the dragging off of the doctor and his sudden reappearance running down the aisle with blood on his face.
The tone-deaf airline CEO changed his tune and apologised profusely when he started to see the intensity of the public reaction and the very real effects of this spectacular mismanagement of a single client already seated for departure. Dao is about to become a very rich man.
I thought of this incident as I followed the social media logs of my train-travelling sister as she made her way on Cape Metrorail from Retreat towards Cape Town every day. What I read was truly unbelievable. Trains were chronically late. Passengers would jump from a stalled train at night and, with cellphones as torches, make their way along the live railway tracks.
Two trains would be standing alongside each other and passengers would rip open the doors and jump from one train to the next. Announcements, if they were made at all, would regularly give the wrong platform for a departing train so that passengers would scramble back and forth from one side of the station to the next in the hope of being at the right place at the right time.
Trains in peak hours were overloaded, doors were open and sometimes passengers hung off the back of the train. The space inside the train was a constant risk to personal safety and security.
A roaring commercial trade on the train floor competed for attention with crude evangelists with a rather shaky grasp of whatever they were preaching.
Right now, posted my sister once, we have no idea whether this speeding train is on the suburban line or the Cape Flats line; it does not matter, she wrote, I just need to get home.
If you had any doubts about official contempt for poor, black people in contemporary South Africa, a one-way trip on Metrorail will convince you. A university student in sociology, grappling with the complexities of race and class in post-apartheid society, would learn much more from a morning in third class (yes, that's what it's openly called) than in a stifling seminar room on campus.
On the other side of the country you merely have to pay enough money and you can slide away in an on-time, air-conditioned Gautrain with well-dressed security guards on the watch for gum-chewing passengers.
The Metrorail passengers have little choice. They can spend upwards of R500 on a monthly ticket, a huge cut from a miserly salary. Nobody on these trains can afford Uber or take more than one mode of transport to get to work.
Where things get really costly is when the passengers lose out on their salaries because, once again, the trains were late. Even when you leave early, says an enterprising passenger, you're still late because of the unpredictable train timetables.
Like the United Airlines CEO, Metrorail would have a ready string of excuses, cable theft being one of them. Which raises the question - why is the problem not being fixed? Billions have been wasted on fancy trains, as we now know. So why can't we do the simple things right and fix this problem? It is not like passengers have never reached the point of gatvol before and burnt carriages out of pure frustration. Nobody wins with an unresponsive and ineffective Metrorail management.
To Metrorail I would simply say, borrowing from United Airlines passengers: What are you doing to the poor? This is wrong. Look at what you are doing to your people.