imagineTrains / Project Blogs / SA / South Africa

Project Blog: South Africa

6 September 2016

imagineTrains: The train users’ perspective

At the beginning of this year we finished our data collection in the Western Cape, where we interviewed more than 30 Metrorail users who live or work in the region, including Stellenbosch, Bellville, Cape Town, but also in Mitchells Plain, Kayelitsha, and other regions. From these locations, we were able to speak with people from many diverse backgrounds. While some interviewees come from the more affluent parts of Stellenbosch and Cape Town, others come from middle- to low-income neighbourhoods such as Claremont, Brackenfell, Belhar, and Eerste Rivier. Some travel from as far as Paarl and Wellington (approximately 40 to 50 km, which means a 2 to 3 hour commute, one-way), others live in surrounding settlements, such as Kayelitsha, Langa, Bonteheuwal, and Kayamandi. Interviewees include men and women from many walks of life including labourers, students, teachers, security guards, delivery men and women, shop attendants, administrators, couriers, repair men and women, cleaners, managers, and the unemployed. They are black, white, and coloured, and they speak a variety of languages, including Xhosa, Sotho, North Sotho, isiZulu, English, and Afrikaans. Although they do not form a representative sample, these interviewees reflect well South Africa’s multi-cultural and diverse backdrop. The common denominator connecting this heterogeneous group of people is that they are all regular Metrorail users.




Every day, Metrorail transports up to 2 million people across South Africa (, yet it is often criticized for frequent breakdowns, long delays, dilapidated and run-down infrastructure, and unreliable services. In this part of the study, we examine this train system from the imaginaries and experiences of those who use it every day to better understand how this trains system – with all of its failings and shortcomings – fit into the lives of its commuters and connect to the greater mobility landscape of the Western Cape region.

In order to do this, we analyzed the interviews using the concept Motility as developed by Kaufmann, Bergman, and Joye (2004). With Motility, the authors propose that the actual and potential capacity of people, goods, and information to be mobile is mediated or constrained by three dimensions, namely the access they have to mobility infrastructure, the competence or skills and abilities they have to access such systems, and the manner in which they act on their real or perceived access or competence, known as appropriation.

We are currently working on three articles which will be published in peer-reviewed journals. In the first article, we focus on the access dimension of motility. Here, we use our interviewees’ narratives to map out the various challenges they confront in their daily commute and explore how these problems connect to the spatial distribution of mobility infrastructure and regional transport policy, and the implications these have on the mobility access of Metrorail users. In the second article, we examine the range of skills and resource people have adopted in response to these problems and how they overcome obstacles in their daily commute. In some sense we present a ‘how to’ guide based on the mobility strategies of the people we interviewed. Finally, we examine how these mobility environments and practices people develop connect to their imaginary of the train.

We will be posting links to publications as they appear in print.

  • If you want to explore the pictorials on mobility in South Africa, click here; or trains in South Africa, click here.





11 May 2014


Cape Train Track


In late January of 2014, Gordon and Max met for lunch at an outdoor restaurant at the Rhodes Memorial near the University of Cape Town to discuss the South African leg of the imagineTrains project. Max was hoping to convince Gordon to head and coordinate the South African part of the project. Gordon expressed interest because the project connects to his recent research activities (see his report on Sustainable Urban Mobility in Anglophone Sub-Saharan Africa, written for the United Nations Human Settlements’ Programme, for example). Before setting out “officially,” they decided to give the French and US team more time to advance the theoretical approach as well as data collection instruments that would be used for the train imaginaries of political decision makers. In the meantime, Gordon and Max would write a formal proposal for the South African part of the project, and Max and Zinette would conduct a few initial, exploratory interviews with train users and non-users in South Africa to probe what questions could be asked to get at the “imaginary” from a South African perspective.

South Africa is a beautiful and complicated country, varying in so many ways relevant to this project, including its geography and politics, ethnic and religious groups, distribution of power and wealth, mobility needs and expectations, etc. Since January, Max and Zinette have conducted 30 interviews with people in South Africa to explore the varied and interesting imaginaries of trains among train users and non-users.

Here some examples of what three regular train users told us about trains in South Africa:

• There are always delays, long delays. They never give you any reasons for why there are delays, or that there will be delays, or how long the delays will last for. So there is an absolute shortage of information. You just don’t know why you are sitting there for an hour. It’s very frustrating. But it’s very cheap to take the train.

• It is nice to take the train. I enjoy it. It’s quiet and a bit more personal as oppose to sitting alone in your car. It is actually nice to be part of the community and to move in and out of it, to do a little people-watching. I come from a cultural background where you don’t make use of public transport, and I find it interesting to see how other groups of people come and go throughout the day.

• We have church meetings on the train. We have a little group that meets on the train and holds a little church service every morning until we reach Stellenbosch station. We are Christians. We are all faithful people that meet each other on the train, and the Sister would pray, and we would sing, and encourage each other, and talk about God. We have a little service in the mornings.

We have not yet analysed this data systematically but some of the things we have noticed so far are:

• The less frequently an interviewee uses a train, the more likely he or she thinks that train travel in South Africa is (too) dangerous.

• The national system, Metrorail, is often evaluated negatively, even though it is cheap, covers the largest geographic area, and is used by the greatest and most varied number of people.

• When people refer to the Gautrain, they usually think of it as the future of train travel for South Africa, even if it is a system that is currently limited to small sections of the Gauteng province, and that it transports only a limited number of people with specific mobility needs: shuttling users between Johannesburg or Pretoria business centres, shopping malls and upscale residential areas, the O.R. Tambo international airport in Johannesburg, and the University of Pretoria.
Parallel to these interviews, we have also started to collect photos about mobility in South Africa. They are pictorial illustrations of how different people get around differently in different parts of the country. In the South African historical and political context of integration and exclusion, these data will help us make sense of the imaginary of trains in South Africa.


• If you want to read more examples of the imaginary of train users and non-users, click here.

• If you want to read full transcripts of interviews with train users and non-users, use this link: 20130123 SA interview transcript South Africa.

• If you want to explore the pictorials on mobility in South Africa, click here; or trains in South Africa, click here.

We will continuously update and edit the content of these links.

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