“My Experience as a Bus Commuter – as a Student”
My Experience as a Bus Commuter: as a Student
There’s something about time that surprises people whenever a new hour, and era lands. One moment you’re young and care-free; the next moment adulthood is welcoming you with open arms. These moments that I speak of, are not necessarily a description of a glimpse of time but, rather, a spectrum of years.
I spent my twelve years of primary and secondary school life as a commuter of paid transport as our means of agreement. It would – for a certain fee – pick me up from my gate at home and straight to the school’s gate. As simple as that. That was my life with regards to the transport system I used for most of my childhood. I live in Johannesburg South, but you could say that I live in the Vaal. I like to call it the border-gate of the Vaal because it practically is. The Vaal is dominant with Sesotho-speaking people, as well as White people who speak Afrikaans and English. Some have even adapted to learning the vernacular languages from their neighbours that they now live with. I won’t say too much but, with this scene description; you’ll be able to conclude that the divisions that still exist are the result of a lingering colonialisation and apartheid that took place in our country. With that being said, our area is secluded, and this means that most services that the city gets, we don’t. This then forces us to create our own ways. Our own malls, shopping centres, and our own transport system, as well.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this essay; time is just something else. And the time came for me to spread my wings in the literal sense of going into adulthood experiences. Being fresh out of high school, feelings of excitement were overwhelming. I was excited about entering into a new world and a new life but most of all, I was excited about being in a new scene far from home. I’d begun my higher education in the big city. I have never been prone to change but change excites me because my mind is curious this way. I used the bus for three years as my qualification required. On that Sunday just before I started my degree, I was very anxious and nervous and excited to be starting school in a different world and being able to meet new people. Monday morning came and I was the first person to wake up. I rode the very first bus to Hilbrow that morning, at around five o’clock. That was the bus that I was told to board by the company representative when I’d bought the ticket on the Saturday.
This was my first experience in a bus going to town and I met who would become the regular characters, that first day. The first person I met was the driver. I boarded and greeted him. He was an old man. I was anxious that he didn’t know where my stop would be. As I proceeded to the end of the bus, looking for a seat, I greeted every other passenger. I did this for the whole week and until they got used to me. What I noticed was how missionary the seating plan was on the bus. On the right side, there were rows of three chairs and on the left, rows of two. Unlike a school-bus, this bus had commuters of all ages. I managed to make friends with the old people on the bus.
I think with everything that’s new to someone; there is bound to be challenges. Obviously, this meant me sometimes boarding onto the wrong bus to and from school, sometimes. Sometimes it would be a rainy day and the shelter that the bus is supposed to have, would be dilapidated, but when you have friends in a place, it’s easy to ignore your problems, once in the bus. The long and intriguing conversations with people, from all different walks of life makes the journey feel much shorter than it is. On some days, I would board the 6 AM and what was distinctive about bus number 1011, were the daily sermons we would get from a lady priest. She would hold her sermons for a whole hour, and right until her stop to Westgate, in Johannesburg. The bus would literally change into a church with the passengers singing gospel songs and everyone joining in. It turned into a culture.
Today’s uniform by yesterday’s order.
Having conversations with senior citizens, is always blissful. Those old men and women would share stories about how their neighbours, grandchildren, or their Stokvel members, are so troublesome; to how colonial rule ruined their lives, although this was an event that happened many years ago. They’ll describe how it ruined their parent’s lives and this ended up overlapping into their own lives and some, into their children’s, as well. When you put two and two together, it sounds like a generational curse that just never ends. With this thought, it becomes increasingly difficult to ignore the results of colonialism on society. The never-ending fight for survival that black people are forced to endure for most of their lives. Let’s look at a few elements of this legacy of colonial rule, such as the use of force to maintain order, the advantage of technology, and bureaucratic elitism, just briefly.
The use of force to maintain control was a strategy that the colonial master used to push the colonisation mandate against indigenous African people. This method was used as a means to fight any black rebellion formed against the government. With regards to this, on two different occasions on the bus, I had the opportunity to meet old people – a man and a woman – who shared very sensitive parts of themselves with me. As I said earlier, I had my regular seat in the bus. I was known as that girl who loved sitting right at the back, irrespective of the many chairs that were available in the front or middle. It was morning when I first met the old man, and for some reason, 1011 was full by the time it arrived at my stop. Luckily, I managed to find a seat in the fourth row and on the righthand side.
As usual, before I took a seat; I would ask the person who’s already seated if it was okay for me to join them; then greet them before starting to have our conversation. I did just that with this old man that I sat next to. We started with one of those short conversations, you know, about the day’s weather and how full the bus is. He then started sharing how he got the scar on his left arm, and a bullet mark on his upper right cheek. He explained how the soldiers and police had carelessly opened fire at him, because they thought he was among those who started the mess in Sharpeville, and the scar on his arm, he said he got that from a Boer police man, all in the name of simply being black. That scar looked like skin that had suffered severe burns. Dare I say how angry that old man still was. He was unapproachable to many folks, but to me, he seemed like a kind old man just enduring his ailments, that come with old-age and long memory. It was after he told me his story that I understood his fury of so many years. He still feels attacked by any white person and he protects himself with his hard iron wall that he’s built for himself against anyone who comes into his space.
On another occasion, I met an old lady who also shared a story about her family history. This was on another bus, in the afternoon, and in my second year as a student bus commuter. She told me about her grandfather that hasn’t come back home since going into exile. So much so, it tinted her mother’s perspective of men, and the whole system. Her family, she told me, loved the tales of his character and his part in the war, as well. It was a sensitive topic in her family, but that would nevertheless be spoken about.
Then we have bureaucratic elitism. Bureaucratic elitism is when a small political class has a specific material, intellectual and moral superiority over governed people. It is a way that’s used to strip off and deprive the rights of the African indigenous people, who were colonised by the west. The black people were initially very welcoming people, and violence was not the greater part of their ways of life; let alone, in their thoughts and language. Bureaucratic elitism was another part of this whole paradigm shift, that the invasion brought with it. With the military and other powers that the colonisers had, bureaucratic elitism worked hand-in-hand with these to push into play the phenomenon of complete disregard for the original owners of the land, and their home, as well as all their rights that come with this, and by using force and manipulation to achieve it. This is why most people were forcibly removed from their homes and relocated to new ones against their will. This was seen as a contract between Boer landowners, and as a way to increase their population in another land. In the Vaal, almost more than 60% of the people in the area were taken from their homelands out to the countryside. That number, due to time, bore the children and grandchildren that are now official residents of the Vaal.
Another factor that is visible even today would be how technology was an advantage in controlling people. Not dwelling on guns and other advanced weaponry; I am speaking specifically of the buildings that were established during Apartheid. Using the bus, exposed me to different places that Johannesburg had, and still has. Some of these places I know already but, they’ve been modified since I last saw them, back in 2004. I must say, looking at the buildings gave me a feel of missionary order. Especially in Westgate. Westgate is a place in Johannesburg just after Booysens that was full of industrial firms. I’m a person whose mind has a wild imagination, so much so, that looking at an object the sound of the story behind it becomes loud in my ears and mind. The imagery becomes vivid and takes me exactly to the scene and time when it was created. Looking at the buildings that are here gives me feelings of cruel employers who treated their employees like animals in a great big concrete cage. Animals who are abused every single day by their keepers. Looking at those buildings, I could literally hear the Boer employer shouting at his Black, Coloured, and Indian employees: “Maak dit gou, julle donder!!” which means make it snappy, you idiots!! in Afrikaans. Some even getting slapped, or whipped, and wearing uniforms that looked like striped pyjamas. As I said, I have that type of imagination.
Most of the men that used the bus worked in these buildings. Some of them are old and some are still young. The old men would end up having arthritis because of the many years of working in the same firms or the same industry but different firms and doing the same work all their lives. The young men on the other hand; some of them were forced by circumstances to work in firms, not as qualified engineers, but as labourers. Working in firms for some of these men meant providing a meal on the table every day, for their families. I wondered about these people’s families that were possibly still in the farmlands. Some even had full families back at home but had second families in Gauteng, as well. Some of these men have stories of how their fathers left them at a tender age to fend for themselves and to go work on contract in Johannesburg, and then they never saw their father again. Some still have hope of seeing them, for closure, and some are just filled with rage and anger as to why their dad didn’t come back to them, or at least just write to them. Some have even made peace with the possibility of them being long deceased. Regardless of their different feelings, and how they’ve handled it, the debt of answers is one that is seen as difficult to be paid and which is due to all of them.
The only difference today is that people have rights now and, labour rights are very serious in South Africa, and as a means of encouraging affirmative action. Those old men on the busses would share with me their stories of how they’d dreamt of being amazing people in their society. In some instances, one’s past has the power to contribute to one’s future as well. These people feel that had it not been for the unfortunate event of apartheid in South Africa, they would have aspired to be more helpful people in their society. African people are more naturally communist. This to me, means we work together for the development of the community, equally. The drive is not to make individual profit as such, which is to say, the capitalist way of organizing society.
This year, I became close with someone whom I never thought I would. An old man who still holds the true township culture. He spoke what we call Tsotsi taal; wore those old-school bucket hats, sometimes he’d wear a romper, and sometimes he would wear a plain shirt with a checkered jersey with cross belts. He shared his experience with regards to church. He told me that when he was young, he was an oke who used to always attend church. He did that for most of his childhood because his father established it in him and in a forceful way, with an iron fist. He stopped going to church because of this abuse that he and his siblings had endured for a very long time, and some things in the religion just did not make sense to him. Now, he just lives his life to the fullest and in a way that he best knows how: a way that doesn’t threaten his happiness.
Life in the bus was more of a community. We were one – even though we were different. Old friends would stop using the bus while new ones would join us. We were more of a family than strangers merely utilizing public transport. Knowing one’s name wasn’t important – we were family. I could say that every bus had its family and mine belonged to bus number 1011. I saw that although South Africa is seen as a champion in Africa, with regards to its democracy and economy, the history behind it still ticks most residents’ livelihoods. African people are known to be a people that always make the most out of a situation, be it good or bad; they never let it pull them down. They always manage to have fun and make their own fun even in the midst of thunder.
Hearing the stories of the people on the bus made me realise even more that the major problem faced by our society, is inequality, and the delivery of our public goods and services. The way in which our people deal with this, is by going to work every day, and with their families that serve as a motivation in their minds. On my last day in the bus, as I jumped off, I realised how much I’m going to miss all of them; all the people that had stepped onto the bus and into my life; all the friends I made; all those whom, I never saw again, and those who passed away, as well.
Karabo Word is a poetry and essay writer who also happens to be a qualified politician. She’s been a narrative writer for about nine years now. Karabo is from a small suburb called Migson Manor in the south of Johannesburg. She has been an artist since she’s known herself and left music to pursue her love for words, as well as the spoken word. A person who’s imagination is vivid, her muse and inspiration comes from pictures, experiences and interacting with people from different cultures and backgrounds. Karabo is a lady who’s ambitious but stands for kindness.