If you want to know the real Joburg, ride a bus
It's a whole different world on a Rea Vaya during rushhour
Wits students furiously highlighting key words in abstracts of peer-reviewed journal articles. Cheerful women clad in Pick n Pay uniforms. Elderly men kitted out with kieries and tweed caps. Perspiring Parktown Boys pupils shifting their weight between school bags and hockey equipment. Millennials in #ActiveWear, scrolling through Instagram. A young school girl gently stroking the head of a sleeping sibling.
A proper mengelmoes of Joburgers, who share one thing in common: being dependent on the bus service allotted its own lane; the bus service whose name translates to “we are going”; the bus service that didn't run for a month. Here's looking at you, Rea Vaya ...
The Big Bus Strike of April 2018 was a rough one. As a 26-year-old who is yet to master the (expensive, environmentally exploitative and hazardous) art of driving a [Tim Blake Nelson voice] motor vehicle, I have been reliant on Rea Vaya since April 1 2017, when our office conveniently relocated to Parktown – one frantic crossing of Empire Road away from the eponymous station. Before that? Uber all the way. However, the luxury of having a Toyota Corolla, Nissan Almera or Honda Ballade one app-tap away at your disposal has its disadvantages: a) It's lank pricey, b) traffic is lank woes, and c) if you're lank moeg after a day’s work, your banter game is the opposite of shap-shap.
Neither maths nor EMS has ever been my forte, but when comparing the 60-80 something rand it would cost me to Uber to work, as opposed to the R8.50 my trip amounts to with Rea Vaya, well ...
I’ve also learned the invaluable lesson of always having cash on my person. For the day will come when you scan your bus card, only to be met with a piercing wail, “insufficient balance” angrily flashing at you, doors staying shut-shut-shut. This means making a draai at the ticket booth to reload your card with x-amount of notes. Keine card machine facilities. Or, if you happen to be greeted by a handwritten note, secured to the ticket booth with sellotape and bearing the legend “SYSTEM OFFLINE”, you’ll have to purchase a telltale, disposable ticket for either R15 (single trip) or R30 (double trip.) Five rand coins are my new best friend.
Unlike Uber where your driver’s name, nationality, number of languages he (or she!) speaks, etc are displayed on your phone screen, I know nothing about the numerous Rea Vaya drivers traversing the City of Gold. Not by choice, but owing to a permanent sign which, in large red upper case letters, implores passengers to “PLEASE DO NOT SPEAK TO DRIVER WHILE BUS IS IN MOTION”. This is a pity as I enjoy hearing Uber drivers’ stories, and once wanted to compliment the man at the helm on his choice of maskandi blaring from a pair of Shox he had attached to the bus’s dashboard.
Unfortunately the only time I do get to speak to the drivers is when I board the wrong bus, and have to disembark at Melville Spar. Now, the Melville stop doesn’t have a station. This, as our academic friends would say, is problematic. Instead of preparing to make your way to the door which will exit onto a platform, you have to verbally alert the driver that you’re about to get off. I usually do it with a quivering “next stop, please”. (I’m attempting to emulate fellow passengers’ request to be dropped there. “Last stop”? “Bus stop”? “Next stop”? Huh?) This request is followed by a “thank you”, as I try my best to manouevre my way through the turnstile and down four (steep) steps leading to the door exiting on to the sidewalk, without seeing my gat.
(And yes, getting on the wrong bus is a thing. My only advice? Don’t be in a dwaal. T3 takes you in the direction of Thokoza Park, C4 - Cresta. Easy.)
I’m fortunate enough to live within walking distance from the UJ bus station and Melville Spar stop. Mellies means a scenic schlep up steep hills; UJ a shorter, slightly less savoury path, which takes me past a seedy liquor store and a “park” where the smouldering corpse of a bergie was recently found. Lekker.
The promise of buses leaving at five to 10 minute intervals is an erratic one, at best. Kudos to commuters who have the confidence to run from the entry gates and, in between bouts of laughter and frantic waves, mirthfully yell for the driver to wait. And good luck with getting a seat if you board a bus after five. Idiom dictionaries/simile aficionados worldwide should consider replacing “like sardines in can” with “like commuters in a Rea Vaya during peak hour”. Just sayin’.
Usually people will board regardless of the hordes, but there are times when eyes widen, heads are shaken in disbelief, and nervous laughter escapes from more than one commuter who rather decides on waiting for the next bus, hoping for less of a tight fit.
Losing your balance and falling in someone’s lap becomes de rigeuer. Klap’ing someone with your handbag as you try to make way for disembarking passengers inevitable. Attempting to hold on to the handrail with one hand, your free hand tugging at the micro-mini which you now regret wearing sans stockings, is a weekly endurance. But hey, as a fellow passenger once remarked to me, “if you faint, at least you won’t fall”. (Cue Monty Python’s Bright Side of Life.)
Ja-nee, kyk. If “Having To Stand for the Duration of Your Rea Vaya Trip During Peak Hour” were a restaurant, I’d give it a 1.5 rating on Zomato. But it does have its perks – why, just the other day I managed to read two whole pages of Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth which the (seated) gentleman in front of me was busying himself with. Riveting stuff, ek sê!
An incident which I’ll definitely dedicate a chapter to when I eventually write my Chronicles of a Capetonian in Self-Imposed Exile in Johannesburg (working title), took place at Parktown Station a few months ago. As I was approaching the entry gates, all set to swipe my card and board the bus, I was met with a deluge of travellers, running not to, but away from the buses, yelling incoherently. My first thought? “Cool, maybe, like, a snake escaped, or something.”
Nogal nie. What followed was a resounding chant of “Fire! Fire! Fire!” No alarm bells were sounding, I couldn’t see or smell any smoke, and none of the ticket operators or cleaners were instructing us to “please evacuate the premises”, or whatever.
Turns out the cause of everyone’s distress was a young woman, convulsing on the floor, and they were calling for her to be set alight.
“She’s possessed,” a wide-eyed woman told me.
After someone emptied a bottle of water (Valpré, not even #blessed by the Pope or what not) over the poor woman, she “came to”, exiting the station trembling and drenched. This left me with a feeling of discomfort; questioning the mores of some of my fellow commuters.
Pseudo-exorcisms, packed buses, and the one deeply humiliating time I got stuck in the automatic doors aside, taking the Rea Vaya has given me a different perspective on Johannesburg and her inhabitants. It creates a rare space of inclusivity; of welcome homogeneity; of a shared reality.
To which I can only say: “Let’s Go.”
Mila de Villiers is the editor of Sunday Times BooksLive.