The things you don’t notice

I’d like to say that I’ve been perceptive during my time in South Africa. I’d like to say that I’ve been aware of my surroundings; that I’ve picked up on how I’m treated differently because I’m a American; that I’ve noticed how I interact with and affect others in our Duke Engage group. However, as my time here comes to a close I am forced to confront the fact that I have not been perceptive enough.

This realization came this past Tuesday. SACTWU has been incredible about getting us out of the office and into factories, arbitrations and meetings. (See my past blog post “34” for my thoughts on visiting a factory.) On Tuesday COSATU, a major trade union federation in South Africa, was holding a protest against MetroRail and PRASA, the main forms of public transit for the many Cape Town residents who live in townships. The trains are notoriously, almost incomprehensibly, bad. They are frequently late, sometimes stop running completely, and often halt halfway to their destination, forcing people to find another mode of transportation. Overcrowding is the norm, with people hanging out of and standing in between the cars. Additionally, rates of crime on the trains and train platforms is incredibly high, since PRASA refuses to provide security guards.

The failure of the Cape Town trains is more than just an inconvenience. It leads to a tangible loss of income when people miss hours at work because of late trains. Workers are forced to pay for secondary transportation when the trains stop running, in addition to the cost of a train ticket they are never refunded. It means that workers wake up at 5:30 am to get to work on time and don’t get home until 7:30 in the evening, losing sleep and time with their families. The high levels of crime on the train not only cause daily anxiety for workers, but also sometimes lead to the death of a loved one and the emotional devastation and financial difficulties that will likely follow.

Let’s consider this in comparison to the MyCiti buses. Bright, red and blue buses with fairly consistent schedules, formal bus stops and security cameras, MyCiti buses are how I get home from work and are transport I take for granted. I have griped about the fact it takes me, on average, between 45 minutes and an hour to get home. However, I have never felt unsafe, and, in general, use my time on the bus to debrief the day with the other two students at my placement.

During the protest, various representatives from COSATU and unions spoke about the problems with the MetroRail trains. The crowd was receptive to the passionate speeches, cheering and clapping when they agreed with what someone said. I can’t remember who said it, but at some point in the protest one of the speakers shouted: “We want to tell the Cape Town government that the MyCiti buses must not go to only the white areas!” The crowd erupted.

I had not even realized that there was tension and dispute over the routes of the MyCiti buses. I thought it was convenient that they ran to Camps Bay, as it is a nice place to go watch the sunset. I took it as a given that there was a bus stop a couple blocks from our bed and breakfast. I had not considered how odd it is they run 30 minutes down the coast to Hout Bay, a relatively small town, and yet don’t run into the Cape Flats, a densely populated area where public transport is desperately needed. The buses run to neighborhoods where almost every household already has a car, while the trains are one of the only options of transport for households in townships.

Faced with this statement about the MyCiti buses I immediately realized the accuracy of what the woman was saying, forcing me to consider how I could have been oblivious to it previously. I could have seen this bias towards wealthy, and therefore mostly white, neighborhoods in the route maps posted at the MyCiti bus stand. I could have noticed the types of people taking the buses and questioned this observation further. To be completely honest, it was a small personal crisis of sorts; I consider myself a perceptive person and yet was faced with glaring evidence of my ignorance.

This experience has led me to reflect on what other things I haven’t noticed during my time here. What have I taken for granted? What has my identity allowed me to ignore? I wish that I had been aware of this ignorance earlier, however during my last week (and once I return home) I intend to keep my eyes open and choose to notice things that make me uncomfortable and attempt to recognize hallmarks of my privilege.

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