Growing up in the UK in the 1980s, I used to love taking the train. I even liked the clattering, overcrowded Tube trains (they’re not as glamorous as the tourist brochures make you believe).
But my favorites were the high-speed trains, then branded under the name ‘Intercity 125’ and capable of 125 miles per hour, about 200 kilometers per hour. When you’re doing that speed from London to Newcastle, with terraced houses and green fields racing by, it literally feels to a young boy like you’re flying along the ground.
That’s old tech now of course. Japan’s rail system, which originated the term ‘Bullet Train’, can take you from Tokyo to Osaka at 300 kilometers an hour. Part of national program to upgrade its previously antiquated rail network, China’s new high-speed trains regularly clock up to 350 kilometers per hour.
You can go faster by airplane, of course, and a car may be more convenient, but there’s something romantic about going by train. Just the idea that a regular guy, even a relatively a poor person or a child, can arrive at the station, and in a minute or so can be on their way to the other end of the country, has an inescapable allure.
On Thursday last week, President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa gave his annual State of the Nation Address to Parliament in Cape Town. In it he envisaged not just solutions to the nation’s pressing problems of poverty and crime, but a whole new urban industrial complex, a modern country connected by fast trains.
‘We should imagine a country where bullet trains pass through Johannesburg as they travel from here to Musina, and they stop in Buffalo City on their way from Ethekwini back here,’ said he. ‘I dream of a South Africa where the first entirely new city built in the democratic era rises, with skyscrapers, schools, universities, hospitals and factories.’
South Africans on the Internet and in the media roundly mocked President Ramaphosa for these remarks. It was pointed out that many South African schools don’t have enough textbooks, or even functioning toilets. Some remembered that the last time the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (PRASA) ordered new rolling stock, the trains turned out to be too high for South African bridges and tunnels.
Here’s where I say I think Mr. Ramaphosa has a point, not just for his country, but for Africa as a whole.
While providing a county with basics like working toilets and police on the streets and non-potholed roads is good, no one should tell us African citizens to scale back our ambitions either. I think we ought to be encouraged to imagine the remaking of our world, and to come up with long-term plans to achieve it.
Of course, it doesn’t have to be trains, but I can see why Ramaphosa picked them as his example.
Trains have long been political symbols as well as economic infrastructure.
The Eurostar from London to Paris, travelling under the English Channel, was meant to cement European unity in the rocky years of the early 90s. The German Intercity-Express or ICE train was one of the measures intended to link East to West in the wake of German re-unification.
China’s new trains are as much about mass transit as they are about showing the rest of the world that China has ‘made it’, and that the Asian trading giant is here to stay.
Even Cecil John Rhodes, the nasty colonialist, famously envisaged not only British controlled land all the way ‘from the Cape to Cairo’, but a railroad as well. Thank the Lord his Empire failed even more spectacularly than his railway dream, though some of it was built.
CJ was a creep and crook, to be clear, but no one can say that he didn’t imagine and begin to put in place ways in which his world could be completely remade.
As African citizens, as former colonized people, and even as people with varying degrees of complicity in colonization, we should dream big. We should imagine re-making our world in our own image. And one day I’m sure we will have brand new technologically-advanced cities - and bullet trains.
Hugh Ellis is about to take the NamIntercityExpress train to Katima Mulilo, but you can always reach him on Twitter: @ellis_hugh. Hugh works as a lecturer in the Department of Communication at the Namibia University of Science and Technology. The views expressed here are personal views.