The air is filled with smoke emitted from thousands of early morning fires scattered across the squatter camp - the "informal township". Dawn is about to break. It is the winter of 2020. Jocab Tsotetsi (34), breadwinner, lights a cigarette as he leaves the shack. He knows that he is late as he hurries along to the dimly lit station where he will board the subway train.
Some ten years ago, when the subway commuter system was introduced, it provided a fairly safe mode of transport. In recent years, however - mainly as a result of over-crowding and poor maintenance - Jacob's train trip is a nightmare. He puts his right hand in his pocket and feels the cold steel of his pocket knife. It is an Okapi with a sharp, long blade. His only means of defence against the roving packs of juvenile robbers that seek to eke out a livelihood on the subway train. They prey upon commuters - particularly the elderly. Their attacks are sudden and vicious.
Jacob watches the commuters board the train. Their faces look tired and gaunt. He senses their anxiety. They too fear the darkness of the tunnel, the open doors and the breakneck speed of the train as it makes its way from Zonkisizwe to Germiston.
Without any warning sign, and while some passengers are still in the process of boarding, the train lunges forward. Many passengers have to retreat immediately to avoid being dragged off the platform onto the rails. It is a daily occorrence: a passenger - sometimes more than one - slips from the over-crowded, open doorway. Invariably they fall between the platform and the train. The space is so narrow that, without assistance, it is impossible to mount the platform again. The result is that the hapless commuter is dragged along by the train for a short distance only before its wheels slice ruthlessly through his or her lower limbs.
Screams of fear and pain rise above the sharp sound of steel on steel as the train starts to accelerate. The solitary prostrate figure that is left behind lies unconsciously on the rail track. In due course the body will be removed by rail workers. At the hospital his or her fate is invariably an amputation of one and sometimes both limbs.
Inside the coach commuters are packed like sardines. They do not talk. The expressions on their faces are grim. An absolute silence prevails. They are all workers trying to cope with their dire circumstances. The deafening sound of the wheels rambling along the rails makes conversation impossible. It is a loud and fearsome noise echoed through the open windows and doors as the train rolls forward through the tunnel.
There are no toilet facilities on the coach. Sometimes Jacob can hardly bear the stench in the coach. No effort is made to clean them. They are not maintained. Vandalism is rife. Broken windows and doors are never repaired. Commuter protests fall on deaf ears. Appeals to the State to reinstate the old taxi system have failed.
Jacob's greatest fear is a power outage that halts the train. These days it happens quite frequently - suddently, out of the blue. No time to prepare or position oneself for these events. The train comes to an immediate standstill. The result is always the same - panic overcomes the terrified passengers captured within the narrow confines of the pitch dark steel cage. Chaos prevails as Jacob smells fear around him. He muscles his way towards the rear end until he feels a wall behind his back. He has to fight back his own fear which threatens to overpower him. That is when he draws his Okapi. He feels the cold comfort of the steel in his hand. He knows that they will come for him. He stands poised, he is ready for them. They are delinquent elements with nimble hawk-like fingers, capable of performing a bodily search in a matter of seconds. The loss of cash, a watch and other valuables is almost instantaneous. It is these young prowlers that he awaits in the pitch dark coach.
It is Jacob's sixth sense and a warm breath on his immediate left that inform him of the presence of an assailant. He lunches and thrusts simultaneously. His experience steers the blade to the right place: into the centre of the chest cavity. He feels the gush of warm blood that spurts over his arm and hand. He feels how the body of his attacker tumbles to the floor of the coach. He stoops over it, wipes his hand and his blade on the shirt of the lifeless soul at his feet. He vigilantly returns to his former position - to await a second attempt. He feels no remorse at all. Jacob curses his circumstances and this death cart that he has to board twice every day. He despises it. He shakes his head because he has no choice. The train lunges forward without warning. A measure of calmness returns.
Commuting wordlessly on the subway train leaves time for reflection. Times are hard indeed and his daily trips certainly do not contribute to the quality of his life: but he does the best he can. His thoughts return to 2010. That wonderful year when his favourite team, Bafana-Bafana, managed - against all expectations - to win the World Cup. National exhilaration! He fondly remembers the family that he worked for in Hermanus and those halcyon days. He recalls how devastated he was when he learned in 2014 that they were emigrating to the USA. He was grateful for the severance pay packet. It lasted a while, but he realised, after the lapse of about six months and a sustained and unsuccessful effort to find another job, that he would have to return to Gauteng. So he and his family settled in a squatter camp, south of Vosloosrus. It is called Zonkisizwe: "All of us together". How ironic. His thoughts are interrupted when the train starts to slow down. Mercifully the end is in sight. The train stops.
Disembarkation is a grim affair. All of the commutrs in Jacob's coach dash for the doors. They all want to get out. It is the last station on the route. They know that the train will be set in motion without any warning signal. Those who are slow - perhaps too old - are always at risk of losing the balance. This is the fate of the commuter: too poor to buy or rent a vehicle, they are driven to resort to the rail service -the daily subway train.
It is a plight that commuters must bear. How else does one earn one's daily bread in this new tormented country where poverty has, over the past decade, increased hand over fist? Demur and protest have not yielded any positive results. It is not only the commuter services that have become so bad, Jacob thinks as he leaves the station, it is true in respect of all services. The township dwellers are struck worst. He misses 'the good old days'. His participation in the struggle for freedom and the advent of democracy have yielded scant fruit.