"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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