Category: Visual Art

#164- What could “African time” be in travel time thought, pictures and practice?

Source: SA History Online— photo by: David Goldblatt

Spending some time studying travel time related issues is at the heart of transport economic problems. Travel time is just one part of the profession, but it is an important part. As a source of scarcity, the amount of time people have to travel is quite limited in a 24 hour day, with 6 to 8 hours of sleep and maybe 8 to 10 hours of work. Somewhere in this tight schedule, travel time needs to fit in. It’s not about travelling to work or school per se, but more about moving around a local area and one’s access to opportunities and activities. However, what happens if the culture around “time” itself is based on a lax framework— like African time. 

“The increase in our rate of travel- the result of improved modes of transport and important investments in the automobile and public trnasportation- does not make for time saved but rather enlarges the spatial field of movement by maintaining the relative stability of the indivudual’s transport time budget.”

Bieber, A. ‘Temps de déplacement et structures urbaines’ in Duhem D. et al (eds) ‘Villes et transports. Actes du séminaire Tome 2, Plan Urbain, Paris, pp. 277-281.

In South Africa, “African time” refers to an approximation of the agreed upon time. This makes room for arriving late because of unforeseen events. Historically, these events would include approximating the sun’s location in the sky, but most recently delayed trains; transfers between minibus taxis; and other so on. As a result, instead of being late the norm is that it is African time. However, as consumer culture infiltrates the psychology of ordinary households the demand for quality is also associated with saving in time— be it overtly, or saliently. 

Consumer culture in African countries is very non-linear. It is not necessarily the high-street purchase culture, or the conspicuous consumption— but it is rather a growing middle-class; higher government tax revenues; increasing higher education enrolments; and growing internet penetration. The notion of service quality is directly related to time saved, as insightful preferences grow at a rate faster than income. As African nations’ ambitions grow, people expect better service, not the service levels they grew up with. Yet, we find a number of scenarios in which public passenger transport reinforces poverty by holding commuters hostage in long travel times. 

Empirical evidence is available, highlighting the travel time, accessibility and density issues in South African townships. What we know is that travel times for many cities in SA is much higher than the global average, while having very low densities. Accessibility is limited between cities and townships, and opportunities are difficult to reach. However, what concerns me is not the quality of the empiricism about this issue, but rather the extent to which we actually know how much time inefficientcommutes actually steal from regular families. 

For assistance, a visual narrative certainly outlines a more vivid picture about the true mobility and access circumstances in cities in SA. Moreso, it highlights the current costs of slow action, over politicisation and volatile priorities against a consistently segregated history that was diligently oppressive in psychology, policy, economics and practice. David Goldblatt’s booklet landed on my lap when visiting the Standard Bank Art gallery on a day it was closed and had no exhibitions. The security guard simply said: “this is all I can give you”. On the front page, was a photo of exhausted commuters in an overcrowded bus at the early hours of the morning: 

“In The Transported of KwaNdebele: A South African Odyssey, 1983-1984, Goldblatt documents the daily commute made by workers who must travel 3.5-8 hours per day to and from their jobs in Pretoria. Anyone who has ever had to commute can empathize with the stress it creates; most of us, however, have the power to live and work where we choose and are not bound to the sacrifice that apartheid imposed. These images are rife with tension, exhaustion, and stress, invoking the fundamental cruelty of apartheid and how it worked to break a people down, mentally, physically, and psychologically”

—Miss Rosen, ‘South African photographer David Goldblatt reveals the effects of Apartheid on his native land’, 2016.

On the other side of the bus ride are the drivers who weight the journey each morning, while commuters may sleep as the 200km journey to work rolls out of the former homeland to a major city. In Daniel Leer’s review, he reveals that Babra Goldblatt’s transcriptions of interviews narrate: 

 “Stories abound of parents struggling to provide for their children and keep their families together, despite the fact that their only time together was on the weekends when the gruelling schedule relented.”

Daniel Leers, Social Dynamics, A Journal of African Studies, 2014

In 2013, another photographer, Lerato Maduna took to the photographic balance beyond a commuter’s eyes and peered into the minibus taxi driver’s world in Johannesburg. As part of a feature in the Goethe Institute’s online publication, she captures brief snippets of taxi driver’s livelihoods and attempts to lean into drop into their essence. Although, not as immersive and focused as Goldblatt’s approach, her work sets a different scene for mobility thought and practice. Highlighting the importance of not only worker’s rights, but raises the question of whether South African mobility and access interventions unearth a sense of dignity sought for in the private car. This dignity in anyways only existed for a brief period in the early stages of deregulating road transport in the 70’s. 

Source: Goethe Institute. Photo by Lerato Maduna

Bridging the gap between empiricism and visual art is the collaboration between Yasser Booley a photographer based in Cape Town and Aurecon Group, a multi-sectoral engineering company. Yasser basically travelled from South Africa to Tanzania using public transport and rose through this journey with his camera and captured the tone and texture of his experience. What could an engineering firm wish to do with such insights? Well:

“Aurecon believes that telling the Afrikanist in Motion story is key to transport planners and engineers developing a deeper empathy for the end user. Mobility and transport workshops across the continent will benefit from these visuals by providing workshop participants with a much richer perspective. This insight into the end-user’s reality will help build a culture of empathy and understanding that filters through in every aspect of the design of possible solutions.” 

—Ferdi Nell, Aurecon Case Study ‘Afrikanist in Motion’.

There is a strong emphasis, and value placed on the end-user in many case studies about and around travel time. This incentivised by the fact that the customer is always right even though they do not know their rights. Meanwhile, operators and owners seem to be in constant tension, conflicted and caught between appropriate prices for end users and the cost of labour with respect to its productivity. Yet, in all cases we are talking about people with ambitions, hopes and dreams. Is the four hour commute truly worth the four hours— each day? Who is penalised when transit is not on time; misses the schedule; or just takes too long?

The idea and practice of “African time”, has in my view, turned an unjust norm into the status quo even for service provision. Ride-hailing services sell the travel time guarantee, because people appreciate knowing when they’ll arrive— they pay for this added benefit. Some companies provide a service to alert one’s employer that they will be late due to public transport or traffic issue (i.e. GoMetroPro). In other countries, transport advocacy groups place penalties on late trains, forcing them to reimburse commuters. At what point will the norm lean closer to the standard: commuter’s time matters. At the same time, who will value the profession of these operators and drivers for doing such a great job when it does? 

Source: Aurecon Group. “Catching the train back home to Kalomo”—by Yasser Booley.

As much as transport should be affordable, but at what point should it value one’s time? With private cars, the opportunity is that every additional vehicle on the road— eats a bit of the space and potential speed that other road users have access to. In addition to making the roadway slightly more complex because a new user is in the shared space. Who pays for this additional delay, or complexity? More questions than answers, yes, but the empirical measures need a visual and experiential turn to provide a genuine view into the transport policy issues. It is about time the standard becomes the norm. If we value time, then we would invest more in saving it– that doesn’t mean travelling shorter distances, as Kaufmann quotes Bieber in the opening quote of this article. It simply means than even if we travel long distances, there is value associated with speed and efficiency. An African high-speed land transport network would do much more than rail or road would do alone (see high speed rail in Africa). 200km per direction, also implies that the opportunities are so limited that people are willing to stretch that far from home– but not rellocate. No price could possibly replace home, even if you only spend a few hours there.