Ubuntu in Germany Column

Experience true ubuntu when you use public transport in SA

(Editor: Alex Smit-Stachowski is a South African journalist and speaking in her column about the country of her birth. She had lived in Krefeld, in North Rhine-Westphalia/ Germany).

Since returning to South Africa, I have been using public transport to get around. In my neighbourhood, I walk to the shops and enjoy the exercise but to get to work requires busses, metered taxis, TukTuks, the Gautrain and a great deal of patience. Besides getting where you need to be, you also experience true Ubuntu – up close and personal.


© The Sandton sunset taken from a Metro bus one afternoon. (Pic by A Smit-Stachowski)

Whites rarely travel on busses nowadays – cars are seen as a necessary evil so when I take the various Soweto busses to head to my home, eyebrows are raised and bus drivers smile in surprise. In Germany, you have a button to press when you near your destination. Not in SA. The busses ferry many more passengers and are older so don’t have such buttons. You walk to the front of the bus and tell the driver personally that you would like to be dropped off soon.

Busses are often very full and it could mean that passengers are squeezed in so they all get a chance to get home. It does not help to complain or query – it is what is and you can sit on the bus steps or hold onto the rail and eventually you get to your end destination. Ubuntu is seen in how the passengers greet each other. “Dumelang!” (translated: How are you?) is what the passengers climbing into the bus will ask all assembled. “Age!” (pronounced Ag-hai) (translated: Good) is what people will reply.

A handful of entrepreneurs carry big bags packed full of crisps and sweets and they work their way through the packed bus to sell their goods. Sometimes someone way at the back will pass money up through the rows to the seller, who will give the item and the change to be passed back to the buyer. If the bus is very full and you are standing, often the people will say that it is okay to put your groceries or handbag down on the floor by their legs or onto their laps to make it easier for you.


© Taking public transport requires a good pair of shoes and knowing you will be looked after – even if the busses run differently to what you used to in Germany. (Pic by A Smit-Stachowski)

Besides busses, metered taxis are also a quick way to get around. Ask the driver before you climb in how much it will cost and you are likely to get a good deal. For short hops, just a few streets down, it is cheaper to take a TukTuk, the mini-motorbike taxis driven by other Africans keen on an extra R15 or R20 per person per trip.

The Gautrain puts the Deutsche Bahn to shame. It is always on time and air-conditioned and so far, I have used it for about a year, only had one day of strike interruptions. The trips are quick and efficient and another option for getting to the airport on time.

Using public transport is rewarding and a great way to experience the real South Africa.

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