Soweto workers get a sweet ride

Gretchen Wilson Oct 3, 2007

Soweto workers get a sweet ride

Gretchen Wilson Oct 3, 2007


Doug Krizner: You may be on your way to work, but in the Republic of South Africa, it’s the end of the business day. And the classiest ride home is a train serving the county’s biggest township. Gretchen Wilson hops aboard in Johannesburg.

Gretchen Wilson: Every afternoon, thousands of people pour into Park Station. These nurses, bankers, and students squeeze into packed trains. They’re bound for homes in Soweto, 15 miles southwest of the city.

Passenger Moloko Dihale says it can be mayhem.

Moloko Dihale: Very crowded. You don’t have to go in, they’ll just push you in. You don’t have to get out, they’ll just push you out.

That’s what happened to Johannesburg’s black residents under apartheid. They were pushed out to Soweto, into small houses and shanty towns. But work remained in the city, and for decades, residents like Dihale had few options. Either take one of these trains, or face gridlock on just one highway.

But now, there’s the Soweto Business Express train. Inside, yellow curtains frame the windows. The plush blue seats boast tons of legroom. A monthly pass costs $42 — more than three times the regular train.

Sibusiso Ngomane is with Metrorail, which launched the train in June. He says it’s a symbol of South Africa’s changing demographics.

Sibusiso Ngomane: We’ve seen this upsurge in the number of middle-class people in the townships.

To cater to this middle-class market, the train has perks — like free newspapers, plus free cappuccinos and other drinks. The train also has counter spaces with sockets for laptops.

Lungelwa Nkhulu: This is your workstation area. So you can work while you’re in transit.

Like 31-year-old business analyst Lungelwa Nkhulu. She says she couldn’t work on regular trains for fear of being mugged.

Nkhulu: In the regular train, you don’t want people to know you’ve got a laptop in the train, otherwise you will lose it, obviously.

South African trains are notoriously unsafe. But Dihale says locals call this train the makoti, or bride. That’s because it gives passengers everything they want.

Dihale: Yo, a car, it takes me two and a half hours to get home. And with this, it takes me 35 minutes to get home.

That shorter commute time means a better quality of life. And for those who were deliberately isolated under apartheid, the Soweto Business Express shows their country is on the right track.

In Soweto, South Africa, I’m Gretchen Wilson for Marketplace.

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