President Jacob Zuma recently abandoned his motorcade and boarded a packed Metrorail train in Pretoria before he changed to the Gautrain to Joburg and then via Rea Vaya to Soweto.
As usual, Zuma was in a buoyant mood, flashing his trademark wide, toothy grin as he mingled easily with the admiring masses and some bemused commuters as he switched from one public transport mode to another.
He showed his common touch as he expressed his empathy for the plight of passengers relying on overloaded trains and Rea Vaya buses to and from their workplaces.
But as I watched images of Zuma aboard the trains and the Rea Vaya, I found that I was soon at war with myself. I was torn apart by what I imagined the president’s motives were for getting first-hand experience of the public transport system.
Was this one of those meaningless publicity stunts that politicians like to pull to enhance their popularity? Remember millionaire tycoon and Human Settlements Minister Tokyo Sexwale sleeping in a shack in Diepsloot to acquaint himself first-hand with the hardships faced by millions of South Africans living in informal settlements?
Or was this a genuine attempt to get out of the blue-light convoys and into the rat race of ordinary people trying to get to and from work – to literally see how the other half live?
In the end, my goodwill won over my cynicism, but it wasn’t long before I realised how naïve I was to have suppressed my instincts.
Last week’s reports that government was planning to purchase a R2 billion mega-bling VIP jet for Zuma blew it all out of the water.
In the lap of luxury at 40 000 feet is a far cry from the sweat and the clamour of an overcrowded bus.
The bitter taste just wouldn’t go away, more so when I read of how Zuma and his deputy Kgalema Motlanthe had spent R210 million on flights since 2009.
Considering the fact that SA has one of the most ailing and dysfunctional public transport systems in the world, Zuma’s actions are a slap in the face of millions of poor people, who suffer the lottery of using the unsafe Metrorail trains, unroadworthy buses and dreaded minibus taxis.
If he ever need reminding, he would only have to think back to what one Metrorail commuter told him that day – in the full glare of the cameras and the journalists: “We are struggling, president. The trains are always overloaded like this. This is how we survive.”
That the president of a state to our north had just renounced this type of lavish expenditure by selling off the presidential jet and a fleet of 60 Mercedes Benzes, proved to be no deterrent for our presidential champion of the poor, even though he chose to preface last week’s ANC policy conference with his and his party’s concerns about the country’s poverty-stricken.
Using public transport is literally a matter of life and death sometimes. Just on Monday, North West transport department issued a statement that 19 people had died in road accidents at the weekend.
This comes against the backdrop of a fatal accident involving an unroadworthy Putco bus in Meyerton in the Vaal, which left 19 people dead and 55 others injured. A day hardly passes without reports of further carnage on SA’s roads.
The urgent need to invest in a public transport system was highlighted by the ongoing dispute over the tolling of Gauteng’s highways. Yes, the Gautrain is a noble project that has helped ease the traffic congestion on the roads.
Yes, the Rea Vaya is a viable transport service that has provided an alternative to the minibus taxis between Soweto and Joburg CBD. But the reality is that the two serve only a fraction of the millions of people relying on public transport.
Thousands of people in Gauteng remain subjected to stress and hypertension by spending long hours stuck in traffic jams to and from their workplaces.
Just think what R2 billion could do to their lives, if it was properly spent on public transport? Imagine what the passenger rail system would look like?
How about smart, reliable and modern Metro buses? Or even better still, Putco buses with driver and speed-monitoring systems!
The money could just as well be used to strengthen cargo railway lines to allow for carriage by rail instead of road to avoid the increasing number of trucks that clog the city roads.
This would help reduce the explosion in traffic volumes on the roads. But government officials simply ignore the commuters, except of course, during October Public Transport Month.
The point of the whole thing though is that none of this will affect our president, even if he doesn’t have to travel by bling jet, as some of my colleagues have taken to calling it, he’s got air force helicopters, SAA airliners or just blue-light convoys to nip down to the shops.
What price now man of the people, Msholozi?