Maverick Life


MPs genuinely believe that we are neither capable nor deserving of fast trains and smart cities

MPs genuinely believe that we are neither capable nor deserving of fast trains and smart cities

Politician and author Mosibudi Mangena believes that the multiple crises facing South Africa are not insurmountable. In his new book, he argues that a central obstacle we face is the impact of a colonial mentality ­– and that Black Consciousness or African Humanism can provide a key to a more robust society. In this extract from We Can Fix Ourselves, Mangena looks at how this applies to our rail network.


Of trains and taxis 

But the type of black man we have today has lost his manhood… Deep inside his anger mounts at the accumulating insult, but he vents it in the wrong direction – on his fellow man in the township, on the property of black people. – Steve Biko 

On an official ministerial science and technology visit to Japan in 2008, Dr Ben Ngubane, who was the South African ambassador to that country at the time, arranged that we do some of our travels, including intercity journeys, by train. What a damn jolly ride!

The train ticket you buy has the train number, the platform number, the coach number and the seat number, as well as the time of arrival and departure at that station. If the train arrives at 11:58am and departs at 12:01 pm, it is strictly that. Coach number one stops at the corresponding number on the platform, where the passengers with the corresponding number are waiting and, on boarding, proceed straight to the seat number on their ticket.

The trains are superfast, faster than cars, and so comfortable and punctual that business executives, senior government officials, diplomats and others in senior positions routinely use them as a transport mode of choice. Japanese people don’t understand why anybody should be late for an appointment, considering that their trains are so reliable, punctual and comfortable. The Japanese are understandably proud of their trains and are constantly working to improve and refine them through technological innovation.

In his State of the Nation address following the 2019 national and provincial elections, President Matamela Cyril Ramaphosa waxed lyrical about his dreams of smart cities and fast trains emerging in South Africa. He was howled at, laughed at and jeered at by members of the joint sitting of parliament. They were joined by others outside parliament as they ridiculed him, and in the debate of his speech a few days later, the parliamentarians brutally and scathingly dismissed his presidential musings as hallucinations of a man who has lost connection with reality. It was one of the most depressing debates we have seen in our parliament.

Why? Do members of parliament believe we don’t deserve smart cities and fast trains, or that we as a people are incapable of building and maintaining them, or that his embarrassingly bumbling government is incapable of taking us in that direction?

It might be a bit of all three factors, with the first dominating the psyche of our public representatives. Many of us do not believe we deserve the best, and as sons and daughters of our loins, parliamentarians believe no better. Instead of daring Ramaphosa to lead us in that direction, members of parliament dismissed his dreams with hostile derision and contempt.

What did our children think about all that? That Ramaphosa is mad? That as a country and a people we neither deserve nor are capable of building smart cities and fast trains? That the Japanese, Chinese and others deserve and are capable of building fast trains, but not us?

There it was. In that august house, the National Assembly, our public representatives were telling the youth of our country that we are inferior and incapable of great achievements. They told our children that they should not aim high because great things are not for them. When South Korean and Chinese children are dreaming of working for the companies making fast trains, improving and perfecting them, ours are told by their parents and public representatives that they should not even think about it. They should look no further than their noses. We are no good as a people.

Are those parliamentarians aware of the immense damage they are doing to the psyche and self-esteem of our children? What should the young men and women in high school and their counterparts in our universities studying mechanical, civil, electrical and other branches of engineering make of all this?

The tragedy is that the honourable members of parliament genuinely believe that we are neither capable nor deserving of fast trains and smart cities – the white ones sceptical of the capacity of the black majority to lead such a venture and the black ones devoid of any self-belief. In part, that explains why our country is in the parlous state in which it is presently, and is likely to be in the future: the adults, including those in parliament, tell future generations that they are incapable of great collective achievements; that they are good for nothing.

Ironically, that echoes the Verwoerdian mantra to the effect that black children should not get quality education because they are destined for a life as drawers of water and hewers of wood, nothing loftier than that. Of course, those members of parliament would blow all their gaskets if you told them their thinking, subliminally and otherwise, authenticates the philosophical positions of Verwoerd.

Most profoundly, did Ramaphosa genuinely believe his own pronouncements, or was he just playing politics?

We commuted by train as school-going children, university students and young adults venturing into the world of work. Run exclusively by the proud but morally, politically, socially and economically oppressive Afrikaners, the trains were mostly on time and reliable in the 1960s and 70s. Some of us would travel between Mamelodi and Olifantsfontein near Tembisa every working day without problems, arriving punctually at work 99% of the time.

We would board a train in Mamelodi to Bosman Street station in Pretoria, catch the other heading to Johannesburg, alight at Olifantsfontein and walk to work. Others travelled in similar fashion from their places of abode in the bunkers that the various townships are, to knock at the homes or factories of our white masters to report for duty. The trains were the preferred and most reliable mode of transport for the working class and served the economy well. As students, we travelled from wherever to the universities of Zululand, Durban-Westville, Fort Hare, Western Cape or the North by train.

The Afrikaners ran the commuter train service effectively and efficiently because they are a proud people and, secondly, because they had to deliver the workers to their workplaces on time for the good of the white-owned and -controlled economy.

There was also a huge “poor white problem” that was ideologically unacceptable to the Afrikaners. The railways were one of the sectors identified as an arena where this problem could be tackled. Accordingly, whites were employed, within the context of job reservation, as train drivers, conductors, ticket sellers and managers at various levels. Electrical, mechanical and civil engineers, as well as artisans and technicians, were produced and employed by the railways. Some of them, after gaining experience in the railways, would later branch out to establish their own businesses or join existing ones. In this way, they used their control of state power to empower and build their own people.

With the abject poverty enveloping the black majority in this country, one would wonder why the democratic government would not adopt a similar strategy. Being ideologically different from the Afrikaner world outlook, such a strategy would have to be adapted, eliminating the racial discriminatory elements, but retaining and emphasising skills training.

Since taking power, the democratic government has steadily and progressively destroyed the passenger rail system. Instead of improving and modernising it, we have run it into the ground, and it is now a barely tolerable service, used by those who have absolutely nowhere to go.

Both the stations and trains are filthy and run-down; the trains break down all the time; often in the middle of nowhere; they are late almost all the time and most poor people, who spend too big a portion of their income on transport, are forced to abandon this mode of travel at great cost to themselves. Crime and lawlessness on the trains is the daily and constant companion of the commuters.

The frustrated and fed-up commuters burn the trains every now and then, while the leadership of Metrorail monotonously reports the lateness of trains due to cable theft. The Western Cape, where commuting by train was particularly significant, bore the brunt of the train torching phenomenon and, as a result, passenger numbers have been declining steadily.

On average, Metrorail transports about two million passengers a day (subject to fluctuations due to vandalism, the Covid-19 pandemic and other factors) while the minibus taxis account for about fifteen million people daily.37 This is a shame. It should be the other way round. Rail should be the cheapest, safest, most dominant and reliable mode of transport in the country. But it is not in South Africa. Why?

Myriad factors are responsible for this, but the fundamental and overarching one is the colonial and slave mentality that envelops blacks in general in this country. This mentality was shown in all its nakedness during the 2019 State of the Nation address in which both the president and members of parliament rubbed salt into the wounds of the suffering citizens.

You see, the black majority government runs the terrible train commuter system, which presently caters almost exclusively for black people. Black people – as we have seen in the spheres of education, health, the arts, culture, literature and so on – are completely overtaken by colonial mentality, inferiority complexes, no respect for each other and lack of self-belief.

So, those in charge of the passenger rail service do not genuinely believe, in their heart of hearts, that the black majority using the trains deserve a better service. They themselves, from the politicians right down to the officials in the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa, the parent company of Metrorail, Shosholoza Meyl and Autopax, would not be seen commuting by train. The same goes for business executives in this country. It is unthinkable that diplomats and visiting politicians from other countries could do what we did in Japan: travel by train. DM

We Can Fix Ourselves: Building a better South Africa through Black Consciousness by Mosibudi Mangena is published by Kwela Books.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Charles Parr says:

    Yip, in a country where nothing that used to work works anymore we have every right to be dreaming fast trains and smart cities. There’s nothing quite like having major ambitions when one can’t do the simplest of jobs.

  • Dael Morris says:

    it’s difficult to judge the tone or quality of a book by a single, small excerpt, but the argument doesn’t get made in this snippet. i agree that it’s probable that there’s a sense of inherited inferiority pervading black South Africans, and that needs to be addressed. however, self-esteem follows evidence, despite what a hundred self-help authors try to tell us: in practice, positive thinking fails. what does work, to borrow a paradigm from cognitive behavioural therapy, is evidence-based change. self-esteem can’t be talked into existence, but emerges from first-person proof of worth.

    in the context of national rejuvenation, that would imply successfully completing visible, significant policy-based interventions, of which deploying rail infrastructure is only one. the reason new rail infratructure proposals get “… laughed at and jeered at by members of the joint sitting of parliament” cannot be simplified down to people not “genuinely believ(ing), in their heart of hearts, that the black majority using the trains deserve a better service”. it much more likely to emerge from a recent history of failure and corruption, a history that has left people with little or no confidence that the government will do anything successfully. that’s also an evidence-based view, and to shift that view you have to shift the underlying evidence. you can’t cheerlead your way to success.

    the excerpt provided doesn’t really touch on that in any way. i hope other parts of the book do.

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