/ 8 December 2017

The gifts of imperfect everydays

Time travelling: Zaza Hlalethwa's daily commute to work on foot
Time travelling: Zaza Hlalethwa's daily commute to work on foot

On a good day, like this one, the morning stroll from my home to the main road takes 15 minutes. It’s 5:30 so my sunglasses can stay deep in the satchel I carry to work, under my notebooks, lunchbox and a smaller bag that I use as a wallet.

The sedimentary rocks and fallen leaves crack under my dirty sneakers as I dig around for my headset to get some sonic company.

Apart from the occasional clunking sound made by opening gates, giggles from trees when they’re tickled by wind and the conversation between birds and insects, the walk is quiet and lonely. After digging in my bag for the length of a street to find no earphones, I accept the cracking rocks, clunking gates and giggling trees as my soundtrack until I make it to the main road.

Once the traffic light turns red I skip across the road to join the commuting congregation at the bus stop, in front of the petrol station where three taxis line up behind one another. I respond to SMSs sent to me while I slept as the drivers discuss their first routes. It’s not as if anyone here is keen for a chat.

“Tropong? Are yeng, tsenang — town? Let’s go, get in.”

Tamia’s Officially Missing You greets me at the door of the Siyaya. The window seat calls me and I answer, in anticipation of my imminent need for ventilation.

Once the back seat fills up, I focus all my attention on folding my physical form. I sit at an angle with my left hip lifted. My left leg hovers slightly between my right leg and that of the woman who sits next to me to avoid early morning discussions about how my thighs take up the seating room of two passengers. My hands clutch the corner of the seat in front of me and my elbows dig into my breasts. The tattered upholstery I cling to does its part by giving my fingertips and palms a sensation that’s not quite scratching or tickling. Only the tips of my toes touch the taxi’s floor.

Orchards to Karenpark. Karenpark to Lady Selborne. Mabopane Highway. Mountain View to Mayville. Mayville to Capital Park. Capital Park all the way to Marabastad.

It’s 6:30. Malume abhuti avoids a red light and makes a sharp left that makes me sway in the direction of those I share the back seat with. I clench every part of me that still has feeling, pushing my body against the current that tries to launch me into the laps of these three strangers.

This tempts me to unfold my hovering, tingling form on to the woman beside me but my destination is a robot away so I take a breath.


My desperate wail does enough to get the Malum’ abhuti’s attention.

The malume, who prefers that I call him abhuti, slows down the Siyaya. The three people I share the back seat with start manoeuvring their lower bodies to make way for me. Once Malum’ abhuti stops the taxi, I shuffle from the right corner of the back of the taxi — with my ass in the faces of the women who sat next to me and the two boys in school uniform beside her — to the door that slides open for me and two other passengers. I jump off. My body relaxes.

The mood switches immediately when my ears are flooded with a medley created by mashing the music in every taxi with endless hooting and hollers between drivers, marshals and commuters. The medley calls for a sense of urgency and alertness, which echoes the sense that this is not my mother’s house.

“Ja … Bosman, Stationeng. Bosman, Stationeng. Are yeng, Bosman, Stationeng.”

Here in Marabastad, the queue marshal repeats this chorus using the same slow mono-braggart tone that people from Pretoria are known for.

“Bosman, Stationeng.”

“Dumelaaaaaaaang,” I say in a cheerful tone because I’m on time and had a fairly pleasant ride to get here. The three men: two drivers and a queue marshal greet back as I move my phone from my bra to the small pocket in my handbag.

The merchants who flourish throughout the day in Marabastad are yet to blossom when I arrive. Tents are being set up, the merchandise — diskopas, puffs, peanuts and Smoothies sweets — is moved from enclosed storage to barely sheltered stalls using a combination of makeshift trolleys and Mashangan bags.

One of the women who sells magwinya has her dough and a pot filled with oil, on top of a small mbaola, awaiting her hungry customers. She fans the fire in the brazier, unbothered by the smoke that veils her face.

The smells of tripe, hot oil, soapy water and diluted urine take turns playing in my nostrils as I hop over a puddle into the folding seat of a taxi that needed one more passenger before it was filled.

I slouch with relief at the leg room this seat offers me. And after I have given my fare to the person beside me, I wiggle in the seat — happy to fill it for the duration of this short ride.

Before I can be mindful of my surroundings, we turn into Minaar Street and it’s time for me to signal my drop off at the back entrance of Bloed Mall, which also serves as the Bosman taxi rank.

“Mo mmollong!”

My feet land in the city centre’s confetti of greasy newspapers, penis enlargement flyers and bottle caps. Marshals, merchants and drivers sip their tea and take fat bites out of magwinya in between talking shop.

The street sweeper shoos me with his broom to collect the rubbish I stand on into his dustpan. His broom escorts me on to the pavement and I start my short hard walk from the taxi rank to the bus and train station.

I walk uphill westwards and turn northwards at the traffic light.


Whenever the Pretoria station comes into view, my heart palpitations start. This place will always be a constant reminder of how far I have to travel to get the things I want. For three years I would come here to board the bus to Grahamstown at the beginning of each university term. Now I’m here every day to get to work.

I spy a massive colonial eyesore that stirs my stomach and dries my throat. To daily commuters, the building before me serves as the main entrance into Pretoria’s station. No big deal really. It just makes me siiiiiiiigh.

My cheerful waddle turns into exhausted thumping until McDs is behind me and the open glass doors of the Bosman, I mean Pretoria, Gautrain station greet me with clean white tiles and the quiet banter of other passengers.

“Dear passengers: This is a service announcement. Please do not obstruct the train doors from closing as that will result in unnecessary train delays which will increase your journey time. We repeat: please do not obstruct the train doors from closing as that will result in unnecessary train delays which will increase your journey time. Thank you for your attention.”

I run my tongue around the inside of my mouth to make sure there is no gum or sweet in sight, R700 fines are no joke fam.

“Train approaching. Stand back from the platform edge. Train approaching, stand back from the platform edge.”

Its 7:09. I press my card against the green LED arrow and the glass in front of me disappears to let me on to the train platform. Forty-plus people wait with me with their toes behind the thick yellow line that we know as the platform edge.

“Please allow passengers to disembark before boarding.”

The soft blue carpet-like upholstery, covering the floor and seats, is clean and intact, almost as if my bum will be this seat’s first. I am not obliged to sit on the first open seat. Instead, I find a window seat where my bag will sit in the seat next to mine. My thighs will not touch until I reach my destination.

“Welcome aboard Gautrain. This train will stop at Centurion, Midrand, Marlboro, Sandton, Rosebank and … Johannesburg Park Station. The next station is Centurion.”

We take off and I see a side to Central Pretoria that I tend to neglect when I’m inside him. Here, on the train’s raised platform he is lush, wide and open. His scenic face fades on the border of Centurion and, by the time the train enters the tunnel in Marlboro, I have forgotten all about him.

“Approaching … Rosebank.”

It’s 7:50 and the train slows down without my signal. I hop off and make my way to the ground floor, where the overhead voice reminds me that my comfortable stay was all thanks to the money I spent. “Please remember to tag into and out of any Gautrain pay area. If you don’t do this you may be charged a penalty fare and become liable for prosecution.”