In the habit of travelling by car, I switched to the train – along the northern line to Cape Town – two years ago. Here are my reflections.
In early 2016 I joined the estimated two million South Africans that rely on the passenger railway system each day to get to work. Before commuting by train, it was a choice of transport rather foreign to me and perhaps also to many others used to commuting by car.
By many accounts the past few years were marred with turmoil, change and challenge with a general air of negativity where newspapers were being sold on the back of crime, hate, racism, instability and fear.
Despite the inability to avoid being influenced by this reality, I found myself in the fortunate position of occasionally dipping my toes in a proverbial pool of normality, so to speak, amidst the chaos – also offering me a reflection through the ripples to view life from a different perspective.
On my first day upon arriving at the station, I asked a woman waiting at the platform whether she knew which train I had to take to get to town.
She smiled and asked if I was new and offered to wait with me as she was also heading that way.
After a brief conversation, mostly around delays and crime on the trains, she said that the best policy to stay as safe as possible is to take the train during the busier hours of the day and not board an empty train.
For some reason her advice stuck with me in a much greater way than she may have anticipated.
There were three distinct premises on which her advice pivoted.
First, and perhaps rather obviously, it relied on a safety in numbers approach, which relates to increasing the number of potential targets a predator may choose, thereby reducing the chances of becoming a target.
The second, perhaps less obvious, premise was a view of South Africa (perhaps also a world-view) that most people are generally good at heart and that one can rely on the good will of other commuters to look after one another.
The third (implied) premise underpinning her advice related to the phenomenon of people holding outliers accountable in a group setting.
Before building the argument for these premises and illustrating the unique social settings created by train commutes, it is necessary to consider the distribution of commuters across the various modes of transport.
The number of people relying on the railway network in South Africa accounts for a mere 2.6% of commuters, according to the most recent Statistics South Africa Household Survey. This is the smallest representation in comparison to other modes of transport, such as people making use of mini-bus taxi’s (22.9 %) and commuters relying on buses (4.7%). The main source of transport for South African commuters is by private car (34.1%).
Assumptions can be made about the income status and perhaps race of the commuters from each group and the extent to which they have had a choice between different transport options due to their location and financial circumstances.
Imagine for a moment a chaotic environment in two opposite scenarios: commuting in a mini-bus taxi and commuting by use of own vehicular transport on a day of extreme traffic congestion.
Apart from the frustration being shared by commuters in both situations, in the case of the people commuting by minibus taxi, the collective frustration of passengers is likely to be shared among a group of people that share a number of socio-economic attributes.
The shared experience therefore mostly remains within a specific social group.
In the case of the commuters in their own cars, the frustration is isolated on a more individual basis with incidents of road rage and irritation flaring up occasionally, and where drivers are perhaps listening to the news on the radio.
Drivers are likely to become more and more angered and upset without having a shared experience with a group or having the option of discussing these events, or simply listening to conversations of fellow passengers.
For the most part, in my personal experience, the level of isolation along the lines of race and class across the different modes of transport is great, but to a much lesser extent for buses and trains.
On a train, and with a relatively high level of integration, there is a shared experience with divergent groups of people and individuals conversing, spreading and challenging ideas and opinions.
Amid the chaos on a day where trains are delayed or cancelled and large numbers of people anxiously wait for a next train, perhaps the daily turbulence becomes more bearable due to the greater awareness that most of the commuters are in the same situation and with that, a little more sympathy and understanding for one another is fostered – at least in my experience.
I have seen trust, mutual kindness and accountability in action on an almost daily basis in small, but profound ways. I have seen people offering their seats (a rare commodity on trains!) to others, people offering to buy train tickets for others, people handing out money, their own lunch or whatever they had in their bags to hungry children on their way to school.
I saw a woman picking up a small, crying boy who was travelling on his own and helping him get off at the right station, people assisting others with train schedules and times, or people organising lifts when trains were cancelled or delayed.
These are people from all walks of life across the full range of socially constructed divides in our society – complete strangers that may have very little in common apart from the fact that they found themselves on the same train.
I often found myself looking up from my phone or newspaper, barely able to comprehend that it was still possible for the world to exist as (relatively) peaceful as it would seem in the train as we pass the many different worlds of our city that were connected by the railway lines.
Despite everything that could divide and turn people against each other, it seemed that for the most part, at least my world of trains was impermeable to the hatred and negativity that was seeping into the general mood and narrative of South Africa at the time.
Don’t get me wrong: trains are chaotic, late, cancelled, dangerous and over-crowded. There is no point in downplaying these facts and many other commuters may very well not share my positive attitude.
Within and despite this reality, it has taught me a number of lessons and skills, such as patience and flexibility, and seeing ordinary order and beauty among the chaos, learning to be more understanding of people that are different from me, and having more faith in the average South African.
Looking back, I have come to understand, if only a little, realities that would otherwise never have intersected with mine. It has given me hope and a metaphor for dealing with the daily bombardment of negativity.
Having thought about this a lot, perhaps these then are the fundamentals of commuting by train:
First, the fact that we ultimately assume and come to rely on the innate goodness of the majority of people surrounding us and striving to become someone worthy of others’ trust – especially when we are different from one another;
Second, for people in more privileged positions making use of public transport, the opportunity to be exposed to other realities – one where there is no option to drive to work if trains are cancelled or a reality where employers are less likely to be sympathetic to staff arriving late at work three days in a row and where the only option may be to wait at the station from 5am in the hopes of getting an earlier spot.
Once I embraced this, it became easier to recognise the spirit of train commuters in other settings as well and I don’t believe for a moment that trains are the only places that offer these scenarios. The extent to which we create these communities around us is a catalysing factor for building social cohesion.
It starts small: with looking the person behind the till at the grocery store in the eye and greeting them before tumbling your groceries onto the counter, or asking the petrol attendant how he is doing, saying “thank you” and “please” when ordering your coffee, smiling, greeting, making eye contact with people you encounter and soon it becomes a long train of small acts that can change the way we see each other.
While this might not be the most significant or original insight, it changed things for me. In part I have to thank the nameless stranger I met on my first day, who in fact, does not feel so strange to me any more as I have come to see her kindness in so many others. I have found a new compass for measuring our success and progress.
Because trains provide a snapshot of life in South Africa, I believe that as long as the people on the train are still getting along with one another and continue to look out for one another, I think we will be OK as a nation.
There is a light at the end of the tunnel, but we will only be able to make it to the other side if we continue to move forward together, despite the chaos and delays and when we choose to allow these obstacles to unite us and make us stronger. DM
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