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  • Jerry Schuitema

Stopping the train.

Things that really matter in keeping it together for South Africa’s future.

Love them or hate them, but current events have demonstrated how deeply ingrained the ANC has become in South African society. In many respects we are like a one party state, and the trauma that that party experiences, reverberates through all walks of life. Its leadership transition has created as much uncertainty and anticipation as the country experienced in the heady days of the early 90’s.

But these events have shown something else:

  • How easily power corrupts;

  • how fickle and fragile it is when it is based on patronage and loyalties shift from a weakened patron;

  • how effective opposition can be even without parliamentary power;

  • how political opponents can unite against a common threat;

  • how strong civil society can be when it says “so far and no further”, and

  • the supreme value of being guided by a Constitution supported by an independent judiciary and law enforcement.

The Jacob Zuma gravy train has been derailed. It may take a while for the carnage and broken corrupt carriages to be cleared, but history will reflect on these times as a painful evolutionary hiccup and stark cautionary case study. For that alone, 2018 has become a turning point and a year to celebrate even in its infancy.

As many commentators have opined, there’s certainly a lot more hope for a better future. But that does not mean there’s more trust. Indeed, the political uncertainty; corporate scandals; a still unacceptably high crime rate; increasing revelations of corruption, arrests and charges being laid, and the economic quagmire we find ourselves in, have all contributed to deepening distrust. We already have one of the world’s lowest levels of trust in institutions such as government; business; NGO’s and the Media; as ranked by the 2018 Global trust Barometer.

One could also argue that with none of these institutions being fully trusted, and because trust is one of the most significant factors holding a society together, we should be a dysfunctional society. Yet we are not. Only ultra-cynics, or some disgruntled ex-pats who lose touch with the day to day lives of ordinary folk, will argue otherwise. I fully appreciate that there are many of us, including myself, who have been affected, even traumatised by crime, betrayal, poor service, and of course the daily headlines that constantly highlight our capacity to do others harm. But we go on, sustained I believe, by the number of benevolent acts that we experience more often than malevolence, and a pool of goodwill that despite everything, still exists between us.

Perhaps it’s the metaphor, but I am drawn to reflecting on another train.

Let’s go back a month or so, and to the maize farming town of Hennenman, where a full passenger train was derailed after crashing into a truck at a level crossing. More than 20 people died and about 200 were injured. Within minutes a handful of local folk rushed to help, saving many lives amid anguished screams from passengers trapped in carriages. Among the rescuers were two pre-teen boys – Mokoni Chaka and Evert du Preez – who have a firm friendship oblivious to racial differences, and who helped evacuate the injured, including quite a few infants. They created the perfect cameo not only of humanity’s instinctive empathy at an early age, but how what is most important to our survival bridges any differences between us.

A few weeks earlier, I too was hit by a train. It happened at a level crossing next to a settlement called Dutoitsrus in Buffeljagsriver near Swellendam. I had stopped at the crossing, but edged closer because of an obstructed view of the track. Then there was a deafening hoot just before I saw hundreds of tons of steel hurtling towards me.

Nothing I have experienced comes close to that split-second of paralysing terror. Fortunately I was not too far into the goods-train’s path and it hit the front left fender, spinning the car out of its way to end on an embankment next to a huge blue-gum tree. The train had stopped and I got out of the car. I was not hurt and within seconds was surrounded by many residents – mostly teens and youngsters. I sensed only genuine concern in their curiosity, and had no thoughts that I could be harmed. It’s strange how we often legitimately trust a moment, and then only later question the wisdom of it, mostly on the prompting of others.

Confusion! What does one do when you’ve stopped a train? Get details. Of what I don’t know, but I found a scrap of paper. One young man offered to testify on my behalf that the train had not hooted until it was upon me. But I could not write down his name, having committed a journalist’s cardinal sin of not having a pen. Then I felt a tug on the leg of my pants, and a boy not much older than four offered me his prized possession of a pencil stub. I wrote down the number of the train and name of the “witness” before putting the pencil stub back in my shirt pocket. There was another tug – and an outstretched tiny hand asking for the return of the pencil-stub.

Soon I was surrounded by railway forensic staff and I suspect most of the police contingent at Swellendam. The crowd too had swelled, while crime scene tape was stretched for hundreds of meters around the train and surrounding area. An elderly lady offered me some mineral water, and soon thereafter another on crutches offered me half a bottle of coke. “For the sugar,” she said. I can’t remember how many people approached me with offers of help. I can only remember the genuine warmth and concern around me, including police and railway staff.

There are many things that made the event memorable, apart from the rarity of being hit by a train on a scarcely used line. Among them was the fact that the car had minor damage and I could drive it away, while the train was stuck for 5 hours to undergo repairs to its steel sweeper. For a while, friends and close acquaintances called me the “train stopper”. Fortunately that passed before some village joker was tempted to ask: “Did he really need a car to do that?” But what will linger for the rest of my life is how those folk at Dutoitsrus confirmed my deep faith in humanity and its capacity to care.

In the larger scheme of things and the current turmoil, these reflections may appear counter-intuitive and perhaps even trivial. Not so when one considers how many thousands of times they are repeated in different ways throughout society. As long as we have that and continue to demonstrate it, it outweighs all else in holding our society together.

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