I’m going to take you on a five minute journey that is in fact a five hour journey if not more. You will remain in the comforts of your seats but I hope you will not remain in the comforts of your world’s. The journey I take you on is called the daily commute to work. The daily commute to work is navigated by cars, trains, taxis and busses. The daily commute to work is also navigated by our identities – Black, White, trans, queer, man, woman, poor, rich.
For many of you sitting in this room, getting to work everyday brings on anxiety, dread and sheer exhaustion. Most of you get to work in the comfort of your car and your dread is related to traffic, road rage and every other driver being incompetent – except you of course. And let’s not forget those taxi drivers that cut in front of you and those pedestrians who simply walk across the road and think that they own it! Perhaps while on your way to work you drive past a train and notice that it is standing on the tracks, with passengers spilling out of the windows and doors of the graffiti’ed carriages.
But for this journey today maybe you are a passenger that is stuck on the train halfway between two stations. Your journey to work started 3 hours ago when you got up, leaving home in the dark you walked briskly because of the threat being raped, robbed or both. You have been standing for an hour wedged between 50 people and you’ve lost count of how long the train has been stuck because once again cable wires have been stolen and 5 trains have been burnt. You hear the voice of your boss echoing in the back of your mind saying “Just get an earlier train, this is your final warning”. And so you begin calculating how much your pay will be docked today. Something tells you that your boss has probably never taken a train because if he had he would know that you are on the earliest train everyday. You are now contemplating jumping off the train and walking the tracks till you can get the closest taxi rank. For this you’ll have to fork out more of your salary that has already been docked, a salary that was going to buy your sister sanitary pads and your brother’s school shoes. The sun is beginning to rise and you are getting later so you take the chance and walk the tracks. You arrive at a bustling taxi rank 30 minutes later and wait in line for a seat but the taxi is full and you opt to squat on the floor in a taxi that everyone – including the driver – knows is not roadworthy.
And so the next part of your journey begins. You hear cars hooting and feel the urgency of the taxi driver as he takes the sharp corner. You fear an accident happening at any moment but know that he too needs to do as many trips as possible to cover his costs. So you distract yourself by looking at the other passengers. You see two little girls dressed in school uniform, the eldest one playing parent, dusting her sister’s dress. Their parents left an hour before they got up, to go to work. You see a worker dressed in his paint stained blue overalls with sleep in his eyes. The lady next to you tells the driver to stop. She is old and frail but manages to shuffle out, walking into a leafy suburb to begin her days work.
You see table mountain and realise that after what has felt like an eternity you are nearing your destination. You get off the taxi and begin jostling between people. Arms, legs, hands. Bodies, bodies everywhere and you have to fight the sea of bodies as you walk and hope are not groped or pick-pocketed or both. There are puddles of muddy water from last night’s rain that you try your hardest to avoid. You cross a busy intersection but just before you reach the other side the drivers pound there hooters. The robot is now green and they own cars so they own the road.
You keep walking. You have another 20 minutes of walking. As you walk you see people like you, they look tired and worried. You realise you are tired and worried. You also see people that don’t look like you. They, don’t walk. They drive and sit in coffee shops – perhaps they don’t work or perhaps they do work but their pay doesn’t get docked. You arrive at work, aware that the journey back home after work still awaits. But that is another journey you cannot think of now. Now you must work.
The injustices committed against us are inextricably linked to our identities. It is not by chance that the people traveling to work from Langa, Lansdowne, Kraaifontein and Khayelitsha are black. It does not just so happen that the white people you see on a train are tourists or white people that will get off at Newlands and Fishoek while you get off at Retreat.
Identity imposed or undertaken says who has power. And power allows you to create systems. Systems that push black bodies to the peripheries of the city only to be transported into the city as cheap labor 5 days a week for white comforts. The daily commute is not simply about traffic and trains. It is a testament to our identities (past and present) that still cage us as the oppressed and oppressor. It is a testament that we may no longer be relegated to third class for Black and first class for White but the journeys we face relegate some to be first class citizens and others to be third class citizens.