This was published in the Cape Times as “Time to make one class fit everyone on Metrorail and get rid of snobbery between coaches”, 5 December 2011. (Apologies to non-South Africans for local content. Will return to more universal matters in the new year. Promise!)
I’ve almost always travelled third class on the train – sorry, I mean Metro class. It feels safer. In fact, the only time I’ve felt really nervous I was alone in a first class (oops, Metro Plus) carriage with one very edgy man. There are always more people in Metro class, more women, more mothers with children. It’s also half the price and – as I heard one man joke, watching people run up the platform – we all get to the station at the same time.
I also enjoy messing with the expectations of ticket agents. “Return to Cape Town, Metro class, please.” The eyebrows go up: “Metro?” “Yes, please,” I say, three fingers raised in confirmation. I like the atmosphere in third class. If there are first class people in the world, I’m pretty sure I’m not one of them. I’m also glad to spend time in mixed company. I live in a mostly white, English-speaking world and, in Africa, I think that’s just weird. I like to greet and be greeted. I like the currents of language swirling around me – Afrikaans, isiXhosa and others. I don’t understand the words but I start to feel my way into rhythms and tones, the musicality of speech. It feels surprisingly intimate.
In fact the only thing I hate about Metro class is the ranting preachers.
But a few months ago, I upgraded. The overcrowding had become inhuman, intolerable. All the carriages are full by Steenberg and packed from Retreat. People manage somehow – with shoving, screams and laughter. It’s part carnival, part hell realm. I figured getting out of there was the least I could do.
So now I’m riding Metro Plus. Conditions are better, especially with those nice padded seats that face forward instead of sideways. But how quickly I caught myself scrutinising fellow passengers for those who didn’t belong! Conductors pass through regularly, looking for chancers who haven’t paid the right fare. They generally do so with a light touch, but I have seen people pulled off the southbound train and penned in at Rondebosch station, presumably to be fined.
And it’s not right. People shouldn’t be made to feel like criminals for trying to get home from work in one piece. It isn’t right that some of us travel in a half-full carriage while the next one is packed to the rafters. (Metro Plus also gets very crowded, but it is never as bad and often markedly better.)
So I’m glad to see [trade union federation] Cosatu putting some pressure on Metrorail. The solution has to include more train sets and creative ways to lighten the peak-time loads. But shouldn’t we also talk about getting rid of this double standard in what is, after all, a public transit system?
Helen Douglas is a philosopher with a counselling practice in Kalk Bay