Ramaphosa's rail adventures: a case of strangers on a train

Our president was shocked at experiencing a delay on Metrorail. But leaders should never lose touch with ordinary people

24 March 2019 - 00:10

Our former president, one of the founding fathers of our democracy, Nelson Mandela, was, for the most part, a level-headed individual. I qualify that statement with "for the most part" because he also exhibited a hotheaded streak.
I was reminded of this when someone forwarded a YouTube clip of Mandela admonishing what's-his-kaalkop, the last apartheid president, during a 1994 elections debate. Madiba made a number of bold, crazy declarations in that debate, but it was when he declared that the new leadership would "lead lifestyles similar to those of the community" that the beverage I'd been sipping spurted out of my nostrils.
This came to mind when I heard that President Cyril Ramaphosa had been stuck inside a Metrorail train from Mabopane for a measly three hours. Long before I read the statement from him, I knew what it would say. How shocking and unacceptable it is that "our people" are subjected to this shoddy service and how "we" will "engage with" the appropriate folks at Prasa to look into this. Naturally, it wasn't too long before the joke-churning machinery on Twitter went into overdrive.
Look, I agree that this episode was hilarious. It was hilarious for anyone who doesn't depend on a Metrorail train to travel every single day. To quote Dave Chapelle: "Everything is funny until it happens to you."
I'll tell you what changes I expect to see in Metrorail's service in the foreseeable future: the service grinding to a total halt. And I'll tell you why I'm so pessimistic. It centres on our general mindset about what constitutes social upward mobility around here. Success in this country can be defined as "the extent to which an individual can extricate and insulate themselves from the ever-expanding sea of poverty".
For those of us in the much-touted "black middle class", this means moving out of black townships and the "black world". "Success" is leaving Tembisa for Midrand, Soweto for Bassonia or KwaMashu for Ballito.
It means escaping public hospitals, township government schools, the Toyota Quantum taxi, the kota from the corner spaza shop and everything associated with the "ordinary" black South African.
And believe me when I tell you that, given the demographics of this country, it requires deliberate, meticulously planned, Herculean effort for anyone to live in Johannesburg without ever riding in a minibus taxi, catching a train to Park Station, visiting a friend in Soweto or Alexandra or picking up a kid from a sleepover in Tembisa.
If this column catches you in a particularly defensive mode you could argue that there is not much effort required to avoid the "other side" and that this is just the "natural" order of things. But if you're an elected representative, you forfeit the right to use this defence. Not when Madiba proclaimed that you would "lead [a] lifestyle similar to [that] of the community".
When I first settled in Gauteng, in 1994, I lived in a commune in Kelvin; then an almost exclusively white suburb. Prominent, upwardly mobile black South Africans, notably former elections head Brigalia Bam, Saki Macozoma and former WBA lightweight boxing champion Dingaan Thobela, had recently flocked to the suburb. Despite my R1,200 monthly wage back then, I also felt quite "upwardly mobile" as I watched USA '94 Fifa World Cup games at Pappas restaurant/pub. The township seemed like a distant memory, permanently left in the past.
Fast-forward a quarter of a century and I hear Kelvin referred to as "Alexandra Extension". Whichever way you look at it, the characterisation is nothing more than "too many black people".
A relative of mine, recently moved to Durban, was struggling to find a school for her nine-year-old daughter. I told her I'd been rather pleased with Berea Primary, where my firstborn, Ntobeko, started his primary schooling in 2000. Another relative wrinkled her nose and retorted, "Yes, that was back then. The school has gone rather 'dark' in recent times." I was left gasping.
My dearly departed uncle Mafika Gwala, the poet, told me whatever you do, never lose your connection with the average citizen in whatever society you live in. Keep your nose on the ground. Know your taxi routes and train lines. Be on a first-name basis with Mam' Tryphina, the shebeen queen who sells mogodu (ox tripe) on a Monday morning.
Last week, before this presidential train fracas, I decided to commute to my Kaya FM drive-time show, Uncaptured, using minibus taxis. The fare on a particular leg was R8.50. It occurred to me that even if I got nothing else out of the experience, I was now equipped to churn out multiples of 8.5 on demand.

This article is reserved for Sunday Times subscribers.

A subscription gives you full digital access to all Sunday Times content.

Already subscribed? Simply sign in below.

Registered on the BusinessLIVE, Business Day, Financial Mail or Rand Daily Mail websites? Sign in with the same details.

Questions or problems? Email or call 0860 52 52 00.