This is my story (Part 4): The Metrorail

So as you may or may not recall I studied at the University of Cape Town, a beautiful campus perched on the foot a mountain overlooking what I’m told is one of the most beautiful cities on the planet. This is also a very complicated city. I remember standing on the steps of the University and looking out what lay before me. It was kind of like a something right out of the Lion King. Yeah, you read right. The Lion King. To the left we have the pride lands… with beautiful homes, art houses, cafés that hug the foot of the mountain and extend all the way along to the coast. Further inland and to the right we have some of the less talked about parts of Cape Town. Industrial areas. Factory stores. Working Class residential areas. The city is divided, it’s no secret. The closer you zoom in on the picture the more you realize that all too often the highways and railway lines that are etched into the landscape separate classes and race groups across the city. Open wounds left from the ruthless whip of Apartheid…


During my undergraduate I used to “work” over the vacations for the company that was funding my studies. The company had their offices in a town called Stellenbosch about 40 kilometers inland from Cape Town. I didn’t have a car at the time so I decided to use the train. This decision was taken with a great deal of trepidation by my friends. After all the trains are dangerous here right? Who knows what could happen to you there!?… *sigh*

I didn’t have the luxury of entertaining the thought. I enjoyed staying in Cape Town too much to want to spend any longer in Stellenbosch than I had to. So the train would simply have to do.

Click, click, clack the sounds of the train on track…

So I got together my things and stuffed them in my laptop bag one morning. My printed copy of the train schedule flailing from my left hand. I arrived a the station.


Chaos. Absolute Chaos.

There were no signs barring the platform numbers. No timetables. Announcements made over the speaker where spoken in some kind of unintelligible gargle that sounded like it was intended to be English. People were running here and there with an overwhelming sense of self organised chaos. This place had it’s very own ebb and flow. Everyone knew exactly where they where going and where they needed to be. Not wanting to bring too much attention to myself I clumsily put away my sheets of paper. Gathered myself. And put on the best little lost dog impression I could muster as I searched for the closest motherly looking figure in the hope that I could get some help. After a few minutes of awkwardness my strategy had worked and off to Stellenbosch I went.

Click, click, clack the sounds of the train on track…

Before too long I realised that the loneliness and marginal comfort of the 1st class cabins was really not worth the extra R5 so I began to spend my mornings in the slightly congested second class compartment. And what a spectacle it was! There were songs being sung all the way through the journey. They would stomp on the ground and rattle against the windows with a rhythm that made each note shake my very bones. There were loud conversations being had every direction in tongues that reminded of the Eastern Cape. Sitting there listening to these words I could recognize but not understand brought up complicated feelings. I felt like an observer, an intruder. Looking through a window to a world that Cape Town had managed to hide from me… That I had managed to hide from myself.

Click, click, clack the sounds of the train on track.

I think about those songs sometimes. I can’t tell you exactly what they’re saying but I’m certain that anyone who hears it knows exactly what it means. These are songs with deep pain. Songs of struggle. Songs of solidarity. Prayers and hymns filled with a sad kind of hope. Promises of some kind of unfathomable reward for their years of struggle and strife. Preachers would walk the aisles and chant charismatically through their passionate sermon. “God is good”… “All the time”.. They would say intermittently. Really? I would wonder. To be honest these prayers sounded a lot like cigarettes to me. Providing temporary comfort. Doing just enough to help them grapple with the harshness that no doubt awaited them the minute they left the train. It’s a different kind of oppression if you ask me… *sigh*

Click, click, clack the sounds of the train on track…

How long have they been travelling? How long have they to go? Is the money that they’re getting really worth the precious time spent away from their families? … These questions would often swim through my mind on the train. Something about what I was seeing just didn’t seem right.

Click, click, clack the sounds of the train on track…

The seats were grimy. I sort of didn’t want to touch anything. Trying my best to occupy as little space as possible, you know? Looking around there were adverts aplenty. Penis Enlargements.. Charms to win back lost lovers… And of course a plethora of abortion options offered by the seemingly popular “Dr Khan”. At first I wrote these things off as scams and not worth another thought. After some time I started to realise that these adverts were very revealing. They told a story. They spoke about a desire for instant gratification. Some kind of supernatural quick fix to your most private and pressing “problems” … all available to you at the cost of whatever you have in your wallet, CALL NOW! … *sigh*

Click, click, clack the sounds of the train on track…

I remember the days when it rained. Unless you’ve had to commute in some way or form you don’t really understand what a horrid experience the horizontal rains of Cape Town can be when you’re standing under a poorly designed shelter built by people who’ve obviously never had to use one of these in their lives… If the rain was coming down particularly hard the trains would often get delayed for hours or in some cases be cancelled. This happened more often with the routes that were further away from the city center and often without warning. I sometimes would overhear conversations of people discussing how “fed up” their bosses were going to be with their “excuse”.

Click, click, clack the sounds of the train on track…

After some time on the trains I started to learn the short cuts, the advantages and the pit falls. I learnt that they were not nearly as dangerous as they were made out to be. They had compartments full of mothers and fathers. Daughters and Sons. Who were either bracing themselves for a hard day at work or returning home slumped in their chairs from sheer exhaustion. I started to understand why many of the stations didn’t have signs or timetables. The railways were like the power lines in some kind of class dividing closed circuit.

Only those who “would” use the trains would know how they worked. The dilapidated stations themselves seemed to embody this principle.

Click, click, clack the sounds of the train on track…

Every time I would make my trip I would sort of feel like I was slipping in and out of the rabbit hole. This was a world full of hustle and bustle. The young and the old sprinting to catch their next train. Disgruntled passengers waiting for the late train nervously wondering if it will ever arrive at all. Not quite the lazy, laid back Cape Town that I knew so well. So close yet so far from the meticulous pretty city on the other side of the tracks.

Click, click, clack the sounds of the train on track…

I often arrived at work a little grumpy. An hour and a half on the train followed by a solid walk was a bit much, I thought. All the while knowing that my complaints stood against the back drop of many commuters who had been doing worse for years. Many of whom were not heading to air conditioned offices.

What makes me different? What gives me the right to feel as though I do not deserve to have my time wasted by the “inefficient” train services? After all I walked into the stations each morning with my belly full of my favourite cereal and a decent coffee, I should be grateful. In fact I had come to learn what a gift the lottery of my birth had provided. My parents were at home each evening. At home to help me with my homework. At home to scold me for my latest transgression.

What of the children of these mothers and fathers? Their lives trapped by the lines of the train tracks. Systematically forced to live their lives at the pace of the city metro. Hidden in the beauty of our windy city.

Click, click, clack the sounds of the train on track…


One thought on “This is my story (Part 4): The Metrorail

  1. It was interesting reading this.

    Some of the people you saw in the train wake up at 03h00 every morning to make sure they don’t miss the only form of transport to work they can afford. After work they arrive home to spend the evening with their kids at 19h00 or after. Forget about how dilapidated the trains are, it is the only luxury they know in their struggle to make ends meet.

    That is how the system was designed.

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