Opinion Piece by Dr Sandile Zeka on the State of Public Trains in South Africa 23 June 2016

Through the Grim Tunnel: the state of public trains in South Africa

Particularly in our beloved African continent political will, or its lack of, is often cited as one of the attributes that is at the epicenter of the provision of services. One factor that we often overlook is that political will on its own – say through progressive legislations – cannot be used as a yardstick to gauge governments’ resolute to address societal problems that continue to haunt massive populations in our continent. Critical in political will is imaginations by those who lead the masses with aplomb. Lack of capacity to envision how things might be different remains one of the deficits that seem to be ingrained in the thinking of those tasked with providing leadership. I guess I won’t be far off-message in asserting that lack of capacity to envision is an indictment on the African leadership.  

Maybe I am on the threshold of reconciling myself with the truths our continent has to be told. One finds it incomprehensible that we unabatedly continue to expunge the appalling state of public transport in our daily rhetoric. For instance, day by day millions of train commuters continue in a state of forlorn hoping that the conditions under which they commute to work in order to sustain their livelihoods will improve. Under the ever pressing economic constraints, these docile commuters are even confronted with an extra challenge: safe way to work. Perhaps it is time we desist from being reticent on the challenges facing our public transport system. With this modest declaration, I set the parameters on the gravity of this note. I honestly hope that this note will not be interpreted or perceived as an attempt to vilify African states and their much-adored leaders.

Actually, I struggle to understand why an honest and devoted African would vilify an African state.  Bluntly put, we need to accede to calls and assertions that states in Africa are not sacrosanct, and therefore we need to be vociferous in assessing them. After all, our future lies on the continent; and we have a justifiable stake in its operation and ultimate success: Lest we are held in complicit.

In her book entitled, Globalizing Democracy: Power, Legitimacy and the Interpretation of democratic ideas, Katherine Fierlbeck tells us that democracy tends to disregard the muted voices of economically marginalized groups within its own borders. It leaves one with disbelief that in the 21 century public transport still remains in a state of abhorrence, with conditions showing no signs of improvement. It has become a norm, how one would have wished it to be an anomaly, that public space has for a while now been drenched in myriad consternations over lack of service delivery. How I wish I could add my verve on this societal calamity that continues to overshadow our human values.

Whether in West; Central; Eastern and Southern Africa the ever deteriorating social living conditions leave one with no alternative but to be convinced that upon attainment of liberation African leaders did not have what one, due to lack of a better word, would call “a plan”. I have now begun to be convinced that putting a government in place is not only about meeting the needs of universal suffrage; rather this exercise should be guided by “a plan”. Some of the analyses of democracy continue to remind us that a negative and mostly overlooked element of democracy is abdicating or surrendering one’s power to a ‘centralised system’.

And the ramifications of this exercise are quite dire as this ‘centralised system’ is inherently composed of the centre (leadership and their close associates) and the periphery (those that are being led; and their voice kept at bay by those who are leading). Also concerning with this system is its ability to systematically patronize those that are led. This is vivid in pronouncements such as “Our People” whenever leaders proudly refer to those that they lead. One would have thought that ‘Our People’ are the tapestry of our democracy, however, and indeed unfortunately, on a sharp contradiction “Our People” have unceremoniously surrendered their societal dignity to democracy. Yes, one would not be far off in claiming that “Our People” have become a cannon fodder that unwittingly act as acolytes for the privileged section of the nation that effervescently preside over the socio-economic status quo. This is indeed a sad situation in which we find ourselves as a nation.

At some point I used to make visits to Lagos and Ibadan Nigeria; Accra and Aflao Ghana; Buea’ and Limbe, Cameroun. During those stints I remained convinced that South Africa’s public transport is well off. Lately, ramifications in South Africa’s public transport are nothing but a compelling reason to extend my sincere apologies to both West and Central African brothers and sisters. I profusely apologize, I now understand my naivety: Actually, in all those years I was in deep slumber.  I have now woken up to the reality that trepidation I experienced in tro tros (local taxis in Accra and Aflao and indeed the rest of the country that was once credited as the gold hub of Africa); and scary moments I experienced while climbing the ejidas in Lagos and Ibadan (and in many parts of Nigeria, our esteemed oil producer) compares squarely with our train systems whether in Soweto or kwaMashu; Soshanguve or KwaLanga. Perhaps I should not allow myself to be lured into drawing comparisons of transport systems in these four esteemed African States. Actually, it would be travesty of scholarship to attempt to draw comparisons of phenomena that ruthlessly poses danger to “Our People”.

Despite concerns that this innocuous view might be met with vengeance, and perhaps render me unpopular, I audaciously challenge the recipient of this note. Wake up early on any given workday. Catch a train, from Oakmor Station, Tembisa to your workplace in Pitori. You will be met by the pervasive danger of being associated with the squalid conditions of our locomotive. What would be a jolt to you is, on a sharp contradiction, an experience that has become a norm amongst “our people” who out of desperation and sheer absence of an affordable alternative transport system relentlessly confront this perdition.

As I indicate, in recent times, and quite astutely, our democracy has found resonance with the phrase “Our People”. Daily, “Our People” are confronted with the enigma called public transport. Do we really care for “Our People”? The answer lies in “Our People”. Perhaps we need re-visit the age-old dictum that says Morena ke Morena ka Sechaba (literally, you are a King because of the Nation). Let us pause and reflect: Don’t we think that “Our People” deserve better?

Dr. Sandile D. Zeka is a Senior Researcher at Freedom Park.

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