Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2014/21 posted by hidden europe on

Last month, hidden europe co-editor Nicky Gardner visited South Africa and adjacent countries. For a change we look beyond Europe, joining Nicky as she mills with the late afternoon commuter crowds at the main railway station in Johannesburg.

article summary —

Last month, hidden europe co-editor Nicky Gardner visited South Africa and adjacent countries. For a change we look beyond Europe, joining Nicky as she mills with the late afternoon commuter crowds at the main railway station in Johannesburg.

Dear fellow travellers

Joburg... Park station... more concrete than park, so not a spot of green. Crowds rush in winter chill for the Metrorail trains back to the townships. No-one wants to be at Park station. It is one of those places you have to negotiate on the way home to Soweto.

Where once access to trains at Park station was determined by colour, now it is all a matter of class. It was fifty years ago last month that a small bomb exploded on a 'whites-only' platform at Park railway station. It claimed the life of an elderly woman who was waiting on the platform. Liberal white South African school teacher and anti-apartheid activist John Harris was arrested and sentenced to death. Harris was hanged at Pretoria Central Prison in early 1965, the only white man to be executed in the long years of the struggle against apartheid.

Now anyone can go to any platform at Park, but of course they must have a train ticket. There are different tiers of rail service with a range of prices to match. The Gautrain is smart, sterile and full of security guards. This is a train with pretensions, so much so that in the run-up to the World Cup in 2010, a brand-new underground section was added to Park station to accommodate the new Gautrain service to Pretoria. Gautrain customers are spared the rough-and-tumble that normally makes Park station such an interesting place.

"Are you looking for the Business Express?" asks a man with a broom. I must look like a Business Express type. The posters for Business Express proclaim the merits of the brand. It's the posh version of Metrorail. "Restoring dignity to rail travel," the ad shouts, "with Grade C security and free refreshments on board."

I pass on Business Express and make my way to the nether regions of Park station. For it is from Platforms 13 to 16, tucked away at the back of the largest railway station in Africa, that the most interesting trains depart. Lined up beside one another are two night trains, both due to leave Johannesburg at a time when the real focus of Park life is on the thousands of commuters rushing to get home to the townships.

"Moz or Zim, Mama?" asks the man at the ticket barrier. His question is a nice reference to the fact that one train heads east towards Mozambique while the other makes tracks for Zimbabwe. But both trains actually stop a few kilometres short of the South African border, leaving passengers with heavy luggage to make their own way to the frontier and beyond.

There is no Grade C security on the Zim train. No security at all, in fact. But a friendly bunch of fellow travellers create their own collective sense of security. There are no free refreshments either. But you can buy a simple meal. Supper is a choice of beef or chicken stew, served with pap or rice.

"Are you doing okay there, Mama?" asks a member of the train crew as she comes through the train distributing toilet rolls. Now that's something they don't pass around on the Gautain or the Business Express. Nor does anyone ever call me Mama on those posh trains.

Nicky Gardner
(co-editor, hidden europe magazine)

This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.