Trains, minibus taxis and the demise of the platteland 'volk'

The system of apartheid, although directed at blacks, had begun to hurt whites as early as the '80s as well, the writer says.
The system of apartheid, although directed at blacks, had begun to hurt whites as early as the '80s as well, the writer says.
Image: Gallo Images/ IStock

A concealed aspect of the unravelling of apartheid is its impact on "die volk" in the small dorpies of the platteland - the very people the genesis of apartheid attempted to liberate.

But more recently has been yet another concealed aspect - of racialised power relations acting in reverse of pimps and prostitutes. But first die platteland volk.

Subsequent to the 1922 white miners' strike and the Great Depression era, job reservation for whites was institutionalised and a massive programme addressing the poor white volk was initiated. The role of rail was critical in this major reform.

Records show that the rail infrastructure was established in 1860 in SA. The first rail line was a mere 3km from Market Square to the Point in Durban. When it was opened, the National Mercury had evangelising messages about it and downright denigrating words for natives.

"It will substitute the railway age of animation for the wagon age of sloth. It will set upon this portion of barbarism-bound continent the truest seal of the Englishman's presence. It will supersede a state of plodding but primitive action for one of modern enterprise and rapid progress."

It marked the beginning of a long history of colonial rule and apartheid - the collusion of maize and gold. In time the railway became a major catalyst in the making of SA's industrialisation. But today, the rail system is a sad shadow of itself, so is the rural commercial farming of die volk.

Passenger travel and goods haulage have moved from rail to road. This shift poses major economic barriers to economic growth and development. It increases the cost of doing business through its inefficiencies and rapid wear and tear on road infrastructure.

But what is not obvious is how the shift might have affected die volk - the platteland boere.

The system of apartheid, although directed at blacks, had begun to hurt whites as early as the '80s as well. This was specifically in immobilising the platteland boere.

With the rise of the black taxi infrastructure, rail as a means of travel was decimated as it removed from the equation black subsidisation of white transport. With this the railway bus also suffered a similar fate. The Afrikaners found themselves isolated and could not easily travel.

They would not use the taxi because this was "black" transport. The delivery of mail also suffered.

In the heydays of rail and railway buses, the transit systems from rail to bus would see the railway bus network delivering mail and white passengers across the breadth of the farmland, hopping from farm to farm.

Accompanying these as just collateral subsidy would be black mine labour heading to the mines and other passengers heading to the likes of Johannesburg.

The proliferation of long- distance black taxis disrupted this financial subsidy for whites and in its place entered prolonged periods of isolation of the boere who, because of racism, found it difficult to take a ride in these long-distance taxis.

The earlier entry of semi- luxury buses such as Vaal-Maseru, which were the means of transporting mine labour after the demise of rail, were also not available to whites as the boere imposed self-censorship against mingling with blacks.

It was only with the likes of Translux that whites on the platteland began enjoying some mobility. But this concealed isolation and marginalisation of die volk has also been dramatically revealed subsequent to the recent attacks on largely foreign businesses that ravaged Gauteng.

These sparked a broader frontier by law-enforcement raids on human trafficking, child prostitution and use of drugs. This opened a rare window on the twilight life of die volk. Led largely by white law enforcers, images of young white female prostitutes and sex slaves who are under management of black, male pimps reveals yet another important lens of our vexed race relations.

In the twilight of underworld life, it brings a very perverse image of how the economics have been turned on their head.

*Lehohla is the former statistician-general of South Africa

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