Segregation has been relegated to the dustbin of U.S. history. So, too, has apartheid in South Africa. There are no longer separate lunch counters for whites and blacks or separate drinking fountains. African Americans no longer sit at the back of the bus and black South Africans are no longer restricted as to where they can travel.
Why then, when I traveled from Pretoria to Cape Town, South Africa on the Blue Train, were all the passengers white except for one. And why, when I took a different train – the Shosholoza Meyl – that runs along the very same tracks, were all of the passengers black, except for me? Legalized segregation by race may be a thing of the past, but economic segregation is thriving.
The Blue Train, primarily a luxury train for tourists, presents itself as a “Palace on Wheels.” The Shosholoza Meyl describes itself as “a pleasant experience.” Neither descriptor is exactly accurate for the one-day journey between comparable destinations. Starting at $1,500 for a one-way ticket, the Blue Train is over-the-top elegant, but still not a palace. At $22 the sitter car in the Shosholoza is a bargain, but not entirely a pleasant experience.
At the train station in Pretoria, passengers on the Blue Train wait for departure in a private lounge, drinking coffee or sipping champagne. A white-gloved butler escorts guests to the train and orients us to our well-appointed compartments which are complete with plush chairs, a closet to hang clothes (which we will need later to dress for dinner), and a small, but beautiful, bathroom with a deep bathtub.
At the Cape Town train station, the line to board the sitter cars (the economy class) of the Shosholoza begins forming more than one hour before departure. The passengers, burdened with luggage, and bags and boxes, some of which are too heavy for one person to carry, sit on benches or on the floor waiting for the boarding announcement. When the announcement comes, we are all on our feet and there is a crush of people competing to present their ticket and get on the platform where, once again, we will sit and wait on wooden benches until it’s time to board the train.
No white-gloved butler is on hand to serve champagne to the Shosholoza passengers. Rather, hawkers pace back and forth selling their wares – mostly food for the long journey. Bunches of bananas and bags of red and green grapes are available for five rand (about 70 cents). One man sells bottles of soft drinks while another just traffics in bread. For traveling parents who might have forgotten gifts for their children, there are cheap toys – model trains and battery-operated little dogs that bark and sit up on their plastic legs and beg.
While watching the peddler of toys show his offerings to a promising customer, a man steps behind me and quietly whispers that he has a pair of gold earrings to sell for cheap. He discretely takes them from his pocket and with his cigarette lighter runs the earring over the flame to prove it is genuine gold. It may well be, but given the suspect source of the jewelry, I shake my head no and he moves on to the woman sitting next to me. Having tried to scratch the gold with a coin, the fellow traveler seems satisfied with the quality and hands the peddler a 20 rand note. He leaves with one less set of earrings in his pocket, but I wonder what else he might have in his jacket – and where it might have come from.
The Shosholoza pulls up to the platform and the dash for a seat begins. People rush to be the first on and 10 minutes later, when everyone has realized there are plenty of seats and their luggage and bags and boxes are secured in the luggage racks above their heads with their food and drink positioned between their feet on the floor of the train car – we wait. The hawkers lift their products up to the windows and sell more cold drinks to passengers as the temperature begins to rise and there is no breeze in the stationary train car.
For 30 minutes on the Shosholoza Meyl we wait with no air conditioning for the train to embark on its 26-hour journey that will end in Johannesburg. If there was a wait on my earlier trip on the Blue Train, I don’t remember it. I was too busy listening to the butler diligently detail every amenity in my sleeper car – from which remote control to use for for music, to how to use the electronic blinds on the windows. The final instruction is on how to ring for your butler, at any hour of the day or night, should you need your shoes polished or a cocktail delivered to your room. You are reminded that this is an all-inclusive trip between Pretoria and Cape Town and everything is covered in the price of the ticket except for French champagne and caviar Oh, and of course except for any baubles you might want to purchase in the jewelry boutique.
On the Blue Train, I see only black workers and, with the exception of one person, only white passengers. On the Shosholoza, I am the only white person – the sole mlungu in the Xhosa language. Laws no longer separate us by the color of our skin, but money does.
A very few people in the world – mostly wealthy white people – have the means to travel in the luxury of a Blue Train. And then there is the rest of the planet – poor people, often of color, who must travel in the sitter cars of trains like the Shosholoza – if they travel at all.
In life, there is the Blue Train and the Shosholoza.
There are the private lounges of the well to do and the wooden benches of the poor.
There are the white-gloved butlers who attend to your every desire and there are the hawkers outside of your window selling the few things you can afford.
There is the relaxing bath watching the African night sky race by your window in the bathroom of your private cabin on the Blue Train, and there is the realization that somewhere, along your journey on the Shosholoza, that your drinking water will run out before you arrive at your destination.
There is dressing for dinner for your five-course meal and there is going without food.
There is life on one side of the tracks and there is life on the “wrong” side of the tracks.
There are the white people on the Blue Train and the black people on the Shosholoza. And there are disparities. Along the train tracks of South Africa, it’s a black and blue world. That is what I’ll be writing about in “Black and Blue in South Africa.”