After a three-day delay at the Namib-South African border, we were finally hurtling across South Africa en route to the vineyards and the preppy university town of Stellenbosch, which was full of chic restaurants, wine bars and nightclubs. Stellenbosch, the location of one of South Africa’s best universities, with its distinctly European architecture, looks and feels decidedly un-African.
Unfortunately, the delay on the Namibian-South African border had eaten into our time, so we had to move on earlier than we would have liked to reach Cape Town for our onward flight. So, on Sunday morning at 8 am, we found ourselves commuting to Cape Town by the metro with church goers, city workers, persistent snack vendors, a one-eyed homeless man, an elderly leper and a constant convoy of beggars.
I have to admit that I was ashamed of being nervous about taking the train, but standing on the chilly platform waiting for it to arrive, I caught myself scanning the assembling passengers for dodgy characters: people who might try to rob us; those getting to close for comfort; the tall man who had stared at us when we entered the station and seemed to have his hand buried in his pocket – did he have a weapon? Remembering movies like Tsotsi, the story of youths trying to make it in a township, I found my imagination running wild. We were two obvious misfits. Martin was the only white person on the whole train. What on earth were we doing here?
The train cost 7.5 Rand (1 USD), while transfers on backpacker buses average 300 Rand per person. Looking back, it is insane (and shameful) to think that fear makes many visitors pay almost 40 times as much to travel to Cape Town (we did not see, or hear of any other tourists using this train, nor was it mentioned as a possible means of transport anywhere in our guidebook). Sadly, this fear may also keep tourists stuck in a parallel universe, preventing them from meeting many black South Africans (besides the waiters in restaurants and hotel employees) or actually speaking to the ordinary people who actually make up 80% of the population.
Taking the train gave us a chance to peek into the parallel world of ordinary black South African commuters. The carriage was a bustling marketplace full of snack vendors; seats were constantly claimed and given up; passengers were busily texting; reading well worn copies of Die Bybel; listening to their iPods and talking to their fellow passengers. As the journey progressed, we remembered a Belgian guy, we met in Bangladesh, who told us that he had travelled around South Africa on local transport; white South Africans had been absolutely shocked and unable to comprehend why he wanted to do such a thing.
After an hour, we finally pulled into Cape Town, an amazingly beautiful city, set against the stunning backdrop of Table Mountain. The sun was shining brightly and the city was abuzz with marathon runners completing the last leg of their 42.1 km ordeal. Within minutes our train journey was a memory; an experience dislocated from the touristy Cape Town which we had entered. Although Apartheid is officially over, and economists speak enthusiastically of ‘Black Diamonds’ (the emerging black middle-class), the reality of economic inequality quickly becomes obvious in Cape Town.
A walk through the heavily protected neighbourhoods at the foot of Table Mountain reveals hundreds of signs advertising the security companies which are responsible for protecting properties. Exterior walls are topped with barbed wire and every window is protected with bars; prominent ‘Beware of the Dog’ signs are ubiquitous. Here nobody walks; the streets are eerily pedestrian free. One wonders if any of these residents have ever travelled by train in their own city.
On Long St, popular for its boutiques, hotels, restaurants, cafes and bars, most of the black people we saw were homeless beggars; literally and metaphorically they were standing outside, staring in on another country, a country that has found it necessary to erect police security booths to protect tourists from them.
Much has been written about the impatience with which many South Africans anticipate substantial change in their country, especially with regard to basic living standards. A large proportion of the population of this emerging nation effectively languishes in the third world, while a minority live in separately in their protected first world. Although progress has undoubtedly been made since the end of Apartheid, the South Africans we spoke to agreed that the process of destructing the mental, social, economic, cultural and racial barriers which remain is far from over.