South Africa 1995

I was surprised to see the black woman in the sleeping compartment for which the bearded stranger and his wife had tickets. Earlier I had shown the couple into their compartment on the Trans-Karoo Express, feeling their excitement at being at the beginning of such an iconic train journey. This train crosses the Karoo Desert, going the 1600 kilometres from Cape Town to Johannesburg in 27 hours (or, usually, to be honest, more).

When I did the ticket-inspection, just after we had finished moving through the Cape wine country, there was a strange situation in that compartment. The old black woman was sitting looking downcast on the edge of a folded down bed. Her hands were crossed in her lap and she was rocking back and forth mumbling. She was repeating, in Xhosa so I don’t suppose the stranger understood it, ‘We shouldn’t be here. We shouldn’t be here.’ Her grandson, aged about 6, was sitting quietly next to her. ‘I’m taking him to his mother in Johannesburg,’ she said to me, ‘but we shouldn’t be here with that couple, should we?’

Her ticket had been correctly issued but she was right: she shouldn’t be there. I moved her to another compartment. There’s been a long history of discrimination on the railways: Mahatma Gandhi was thrown out of a whites-only carriage on South African Railways in 1893. Now, in 1995, it’s different. Nothing to do with colour, the grandma rightly felt she shouldn’t be sharing a compartment with a married couple.