The City of Johannesburg has compiled an excellent self-guided bus tour of Soweto. My South African hosts and I decided to do the tour one Saturday morning. Serendipitously, we reached the Jo’burg Theater Rea Vaya station just as city council members were boarding a special Rea Vaya bus for their own guided tour of the corridor. We were invited to join them, and I loved the tour and the chance to talk with some of the city and PioTrans officials.

We disembarked in front of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu’s house, then continued with the official delegation up Vilakazi Street past some captivating public art and the former residence of Nelson Mandela (now a museum). At the memorial to Hector Pieterson, we turned and went down the hill, hopping on a Rea Vaya T1 bus and continuing to the Walter Sisulu Square of Dedication. Rea Vaya does an excellent job of providing easily-comprehensible, efficient, and reliable transportation service to Soweto. Not only does this provide a much-needed service for Soweto’s residents, it also enables residents from other parts of South Africa to more comfortably visit these historic sites. Many of those who visit for the first time are pleasantly surprised by the quick trip on Rea Vaya and the warm welcome they receive in Soweto, a place that, in the country’s historical memory, is far-removed from Johannesburg.

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"First Class Treasures"

When I would board Cape Town’s Metrorail, the ticket agents would usually sell me, a white-looking person, a first class ticket. One time, out of curiosity, I asked for a second-class ticket instead. The agent looked at me as if I were crazy and curtly informed me that there are only first and third class tickets. I found the omission of second class nonsensical until I reminded myself that South Africa is one of the world’s most unequal countries (with a Gini coefficient second only to Namibia’s). Given South Africa’s history, its separation of train service into first and third classes, without designating a second class, makes sense.

Cape Town Station embodies this apartheid legacy of inequality and segregation:

The first station developments on the site date back to the mid 1800s when rail began playing an important role in the history of the early settlement at the Cape, the Boer War, the Apartheid Era and the Resistance of 1980’s on. The existing station development dates back to the early 1960s when the Victorian structure on Adderley Street was demolished to make way for a modern building that embodied the policy of apartheid, through the introduction of separate concourses and entrances for people of different population groups… The challenge of the present is to re-interpret the station as a profound symbol of the city and to determine how it will influence what happens at its edges, what effect it will have on the city, what potentials it can realise and what it will represent to the people of Cape Town, South Africa and the rest of the World.

(From PRASA’s Xchange Project).

Most passengers today use the First Class entrances and waiting areas, since the station areas are no longer segregated. The station’s design obscures the Third Class areas, its “back doors,” from passengers using the First Class facilities. To get an insight into these “back doors” that non-whites were forced to use during apartheid, I participated in a tour called “First Class Treasures,” part of Cape Town’s Infecting the City public art festival.

Using spoken word, music, and video, the tour was an “unusual and illuminating journey through the old and new parts of the Cape Town City Station.” Jethro Louw, “the godfather of the spoken word in Cape Town,” provided powerful insights into how the evolution of the railroad and the station heightened social tensions, beginning with South Africa’s first steam locomotives and trains. The tour ended in the Third Class suburban concourse, a neglected hallway with more pigeons than passengers.

It was in the Third Class concourse that I saw a billboard for the Xchange Project, promising investment and renovation for the station. In the project’s Basic Information Document, PRASA outlines four goals:

  • Reframe the role of Cape Town Station to become a vibrant, operationally efficient and dignified public transport hub at the heart of Cape Town
  • Re-organise spatial and functional arrangements that facilitate operational efficiencies, economic progression while driving spatial and social integration
  • Revitalise and re-energise the station as a sustainable destination/gateway to Metropol and hinterland
  • Renew public confidence in rail travel

Tellingly, this document also lists the first role of Cape Town Station as “Social and Governance” (ahead of Railway Operations, Transport, Spatial, Economy, and Environment). The stated goal of station renovation seems to be working against the station’s apartheid design principles. Yet in practice, the First Class part of the station received a World Cup face-lift, while the Third Class concourse has been basically untouched. The shops there are mostly shuttered, and only a few passengers transferring from the minibus taxi rank on the station’s roof still use the old, unattractive Third Class concourse. It seems that, so far, work on the Cape Town station has only increased the inequality between the two spaces and further marginalized the Third Class concourse.

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Robben Island

A small island in Table Bay, windswept Robben Island has some fun wildlife and scenic views. It was also home to one of South Africa’s most infamous jails, where the apartheid government held Nelson Mandela for 18 of the 27 years of his imprisonment. He and hundreds of other political prisoners lived under harsh conditions, but visits today, led by former political prisoners, are imbued with a tone of optimism about their ability to triumph over such conditions.

Prisoners were forced to complete menial tasks in a small limestone quarry on the island. The glare was so bright that many suffered permanent eye damage (for this reason, nobody is allowed to take flash pictures of Nelson Mandela). They dubbed the quarry “The University”, and while they worked there, the future leaders of South Africa debated various political theories. Prisoners made a concerted effort to educate their guards about the injustices of oppression; guards had to be changed often because so many came to agree with the arguments of their prisoners.

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