Train Travesties – Shame Abantu

There is no better way to sum my up the duality of my current existence than to follow me on my weekly trip to my office in Johannesburg.

My day starts off at 3h40 and is followed by a 4km walk to the nearest Metrorail Train Station at Mamelodi Gardens. I pay R6 and then hop off 20 minutes later at Hatfield and then cross the road to the Gautrain station and arrive in Sandton 34 minutes later.

This is the theory. In reality, the road that separates these two Hatfield train stations might very well be as wide as the Indian Ocean.

Based on 2012 stats, the Gautrain has a 98.6% success rate for trains leaving within a 3-minute window period of its scheduled departure. This puts it above global benchmarks such as the London Overground and Heathrow Express.

Quite rightly then, the Metrorail and I have an unhappy love affair. It has met its scheduled departure time exactly 0% of the four times I have graced its platforms. In fact, the trains have been 40 minutes late on average. If I had made a daily trip to Joburg this week, the 4h30 train I should have caught would not have arrived at all. It was broken with no serviceable replacement on standby. So the default would have been the 05h00 train with a double commutership clambouring for precious space onboard.

Today was just another depressing Metrorail interaction. This time a goods locomotive was on fire and had stalled on the track. Together with my landlord, we had to walk for 60 minutes to get to the next train station down dusty and dark service roads. He had no cash for a R14 taxi trip and neither did I. From the milling crowds at the “Eerste Fabriek” station who had also made cross-country treks, I heard the platitude “Shame umlungu.” Hardly shame for me. This is a transient experience. My daily livelihood does not depend on such an unreliable service.

And then I cross the road at Hatfield, I am crossing over into the developed world with lighting, security guards, signage everywhere, seats on a heated train and a passenger service that leaves to the second. The optimist in me says that surely if we can do it for the Gautrain, then why can’t we can do it for the Metrorail. After all, they both run on train tracks and leave and arrive at stations.

I hope that the R51 billion upgrade and expansion of the current rail infrastructure will actually start benefiting the voiceless because it is “Shame abantu” right now.


  1. Marlik says:

    lol,,, “shame umlungu” thats how much compassion people who are in underpriveledge areas have, that their own condition they will not like for someone else who they see does’nt belong in that environment experience, but your comeback too Julian is great “shame abantu”. it’s realy a shame that with developments in SA the underpriviledge dont get such upgrades that will compare to the Gautrain, even those R51b mentioned in the rail infrastrcture will not reach those area’s, however as long as we have hope and faith, miracles are possible..

  2. Xandra says:

    Shame Abantu indeed….I remember that unreliable Metrorail service. It seems nothing has changed 🙁

  3. Sebastian says:

    Julian, I make a daily round-trip between Pretoria and Joburg. I use Metrorail, Gautrain and Rea Vaya (BRT).I also have to confront poverty, privilege and poor communication on a daily basis.The metrorail commuters in Pretoria have long suffered many indignities, but there have been improvements.I think that there is a general lack of respect towards the dignity of the poor in our society and that public transport brings this to the surface.

  4. David Buchanan says:


    Take solace in the fact that here in so called ‘First World’ London, the ‘convenience’ of highly developed public transport is not all it’s cracked up to be. England is a country that gets cold in winter, on that we can all agree. The sad fact however is that winter weather conditions seems to surprise train operators…erm…every winter…

    Commuters can regularly expect to be confronted with delays and unannounced, unexplained cancellations at short notice during this period. Often the alternatives are equally inconvenient but at least they are often free in the case of replacement bus services and the like. However if the station is even vaguely remote then it’s simply a case of tough luck for the commuter.

    Such inconveniences are also not exclusive to winter. In my time here I have been treated to some very interesting reasons for train delays or cancellations, including:

    “…the wrong kind of rain…”
    “…leaves on the line…”
    “…signal failure due to hot weather…”
    “…signal failure due to cold weather…”
    “…signal failure due to wet weather…”
    “…signal failure due to snow…”

    and my personal favourite:

    “…no driver being available for the train…”

    This is why I now ride a bicycle to and from work, in the process getting fitter and the not so small matter of saving the equivalent of at least R 17000 a year on train fare.

    This is the sad fact of privatisation setting shareholder dividends above the needs of the cash cows…I mean ‘customers’.

    So in summary, given the nascency of South Africa’s formal public transport infrastructure (or rather one which for the first time seeks to adequately serve the needs of the whole population) I’d suggest the teething problems you are experiencing are exactly that. This is of course provided the investment in infrastructure continues. That applies to both new developments as well as the often neglected regular maintenance of existing systems. The latter has always been a problem in Africa as a whole.

    It’s not often I commend ‘social experiments’ but I commend yours. Hopefully with adequate media exposure you can affect perceptions of all parties in South Africa.


    P.S: Whilst I like the sound of your website strap line (Empathy is essential for effective democracy) I must gently call you out on it.

    South Africa is in theory at least a republic, not a true democracy. There is a distinct difference between the two 🙂

    The country has a constitution for a reason and hopefully the people can remind and if necessary compel those in power to adhere to it. If necessary it can be a stick to be used by the people to ‘beat’ government, provided the beating serves the rights attributed to the people in the Constitution.

    Sadly the wonderful US Constitution is being systematically trampled by both the incumbent and past governments. Application of the contents therein are increasingly being applied in a discretionary fashion even though the laws of the country use it as their foundation.

    Let us hope South Africa does not heed the actions of this influential, dominant and increasingly hegemonic world power and abandon their beautiful Constitution.

    In the event you may have forgotten the basics then helpful American Henry Rollins runs through the preamble on this clip between minute mark 26:25 and 29:35.

  5. Asanda says:

    And I hope this opens a lot of employers minds. In essence, you were early for work until you were late because there is no way of getting to work. Eye opening indeed.

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