My buildup to Wednesday night’s game started well.

I caught a ride to Park Station in downtown Johannesburg. Joined up with hundreds of fellow Bafana Bafana supporters in jubilant spirit, singing and blowing vuvuzelas, waiting for the Metrorail train that would take us to Rissik Station in Pretoria, a minutes long walk to Loftus Versveld Stadium, to watch our team take on Uruguay in a must win game.
I was pleased to be taking my first train to Pretoria. I worked there for a year a while back, and commuted by car every day. Driving 45 – 60 minute each way- barring traffic misfortune- I never considered Metrorail as an option. My impression was that it had a reputation for being slow, unreliable, and not particularly safe. I’m willing to tolerate my fair share of urban danger, but I value my time.
Anyway, the train pulled up within a few minutes of the scheduled time. At some point on the train, a man in a blond wig, one of the leaders of a band of raucous supporters, drew cheers from the entire car counting the milestones achieved despite international skepticism of our ability to host a successful World Cup: the stadiums, the Bus Rapid Transit system, the highway upgrading, the Gautrain.
I couldn’t have imagined a better maiden Metrorail journey. I was happy to see the much-maligned rail service playing a key role in the World Cup transport mix, after all the publicity around its shiny new, unfinished big brother. I sat back and reveled in the novelty of it all, as the singing (and less healthily for my ear drums, the vuvuzela-ing) continued all the way to Tshwane.
Arriving at the stadium I saw a family friend. After greeting, I asked how he came:
Him: I drove. Came via the R21 after stopping at the airport, it was an easy drive.
Me: Oh, I took the train from Park Station, was scared of the traffic. It was nice.
Him: [Cautiously, and in retrospect forebodingly] Let’s just hope going back is as easy as it was coming.
The stadium was rocking, packed with supporters in green and gold willing Bafana to victory. Alas, it wasn’t to be. A deflection and a penalty cost Bafana the game, and a late third goal further worsened a goal difference which could prove crucial, if Bafana secure an improbable victory over France in the final group game, and finish level on points with another team in the race for the 2nd spot in the group.
I left the game disappointed, hurrying to Rissik Station in time to catch the midnight train, the first Joburg-bound train leaving the stadium. Happy to get in the doors in time, and unhappy to again find myself in a car with fans oblivious to the effect vuvuzelas blown in an enclosed space are likely to have on ear drums, I was looking forward to being home in an hour after a long, disappointing evening. Alas, it wasn’t to be.
Shortly after Centurion, the train ground to a halt. The lights shut off. After a half an hour or so sitting in the dark, a train pulled up alongside, with lights on. The passengers in my car needed no official prompting, as we jumped the 6ft down into the gravel between the two trains, and assisted by passengers in the train above, up into the new one. Shortly thereafter we were off again, making it 5 to 10 minutes on into what seemed to be Olifantsfontein before the second train stopped. About an hour into what would be about a 90 minute wait (times inexact as my phone on which I rely for timekeeping had died at this point), a Metrorail representative entered our car to inform us that a power failure at a substation several stops down had caused the stoppage, and a diesel train and buses were en route to either pull us through to Johannesburg, or drive us, depending which arrived first. The diesel eventually did, and I got to park Station about 3:30am.
So a 80 minute train ride took 3 and 1/2 hours. I got home after 4am vowing never to take Metrorail again.
A convenient, inexpensive, public transport system is the difference between a big city, and a great city.
Being a big city is no particular achievement. Lagos is big. If you had the opportunity to move to any city in the world, there would be a lot of big cities in your list, but I’d bet that the ones near the top would have good public transport systems. The ones closer to the bottom wouldn’t. See what I’m getting at?
What makes a city great, is the quality of life it allows for its residents, and not just the affluent ones. Transport is a major factor affecting quality of life.
It seems to have taken 13 years- to 2007 when the Bus Rapid Transit system project was announced– for government to realize that making it easy for all citizens to move around is a good idea. I’m purposefully not including the Gautrain in that estimation- announced in 2000- as it’s objective was always to give middle class commuters an alternative to driving between Johannesburg and Pretoria. That’s a noble goal, but ignored the area of greatest need and injustice: the vast majority of the city who find it difficult to get around.
The options for people in Joburg pre-BRT and Gautrain are: bus, train (Metrorail), taxi.
Bus – There are not enough routes, meaning it isn’t a feasible method for getting anywhere in the city. There are not enough buses on the routes that do exist, meaning even when a bus is going where a person needs it to go- which is not always easy to tell since schedules are rarely posted- one faces the prospect of a bus to packed to enter, forcing you to wait indefinitely for the next one.
Train – Unreliable, can be late or get stuck. Unsafe, criminals have long plied their trade on commuters. Slow.
Taxis – Where do I start? Pretty easy to figure out where they are going, and we won’t mention the esoteric hand signals used to flag them. We wont even mention the mayhem they cause on the roads: accidents, stopping suddenly in places most likely to obstruct traffic.
They are, however, unreliable (unpredictable time schedules; strikes), unsafe (crashes caused by bad and reckless driving and disregard of traffic laws made more deadly by excessive occupancy which rules out the use of seat belts; violent taxi wars), uncomfortable to the point of being inhumane (drivers cram as many people in as physically possible; being in close confines with passengers with hygiene issues; extreme heat and cold depending on the season; high decibel sound systems next to your ears), not to mention rude and abusive drivers which are the standard in an industry which seems to have never heard of, or have a deep, suspicious aversion new fangled concepts such as customer service.
What are the social costs of our lack of convenient, affordable public transport? Our spatial apartheid is reinforced as people struggle to access all parts of the city. The previously advantaged remain entrenched as they have superior access to prime areas to work, play and live. The working class and township residents have poorer quality of life, as they have to budget for long, uncomfortable journeys when planning forays out of their immediate surrounds. Those without cars face constraints in travelling for study, work and business. Time spent travelling is time spent not studying, working, and doing business. Parents who spend hours commuting each day spend less time with their children.
Joburg trumpets itself as a ‘world class African city’. We’re not there yet. When transport ceases to be an obstacle to be overcome, for all city residents, we can hail ourselves as world class.
Maybe then we wont need to.