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Photo by Luxolo Witvoet.

'Journey With Me' Is a Window Into the Ups and Downs of Traveling by Train In South Africa

In his new photo series, South African artist Luxolo Witvoet, speaks to everyday people in Cape Town about their experiences commuting via the city's fragile, yet vital train system.

Luxolo Witvoet is a 25-year-old multidisciplinary artist and photographer from Cape Town. In his latest series "Journey With Me," Witvoet set out to document the stories of South Africans commuting to and from work, school, and job hunting. While simply riding on the train might seem like a mundane, everyday act, the train holds special significance in South African history. "During apartheid, the train was the choice of transport that our forefathers & mothers used to travel long distances from one province or state to the next in search of work and a better tomorrow for their offspring—us," says Witvoet. His connection to the train is a personal one, directly linked to his family lineage. "My nineteen year old late grandmother travelled from her birthplace, Aliwal North to relocate to Cape Town using the train. While in Cape Town, she would eventually find work as a maid and she would meet her husband on the train en route to work," he adds.


The train still remains the most commonly used mode of transportation according to the photographer, but the riding experience has declined significantly for many riders in recent years. This is a point that Witvoet and the 25 people he spoke to for the documentary-style series made a point of emphasizing. "Ever since the management changed from being government owned to privately owned PRASA, things have become detrimental," the photographer notes. With "Journey With Me," the artist offered fellow commuters, an opportunity to speak on the fragile state of the train system by sharing what they enjoy about taking the train as well as what they dislike, or even hate, about it.

"Using my art as a tool," he says. "[I wanted] to give voices to the people who the media doesn't bother to. I photographed 25 images which commemorate the 25 years of democracy and my 25 years in this world." His work offers a window into a central part of everyday life for many South Africans that, and urges viewers to immerse themselves in both the good and more challenging parts of each respective journey from a visual perspective. "These are their stories, some brief, some in depth. Come and journey with us."

See a selection of the Witovet's "Journey With Me" series below. Some responses were given in IsiXhosa and translated into English by the artist, who adds that "slang" names for the train in IsiXhosa include: gayido, impantshwa, uloliwe, umbombela, and istimela. You can check out more of Witvoet's work via his Instagram and Vimeo pages.

Lematrio

Photo by Luxolo Witvoet.

I travel by train a lot because when I go to work, I take a train from Elsies River to Stikland. I will say that it's an enjoyable ride, because early in the morning there aren't a lot of people. When there is a lot of people, there's not actually a dull moment because there's a lot of funny people who sometimes you watch and laugh about. There are a lot of characters on there. Some people like to dance also and just make their own performances for everyone. It gets you where you wanna be, you understand? Maybe not the quickest like a taxi, but the taxis isn't the best ride because maybe they're gonna start shooting at each other. Me and my wife are taking this ride because I know how it feels—just watching the places [as you pass by]. It's just easy—you hear the sounds of the train, the silence. It's something new for her to see what it's like riding a train.

What I don't like about the train though is it stops sometimes and you have to wait very long. It may stop when you need to come by a place very urgently. But there's not actually a lot I don't like about it. For me the train is nice, I enjoy it. When I come on, I just sit and relax until I arrive at my station.

Nancy

Photo by Luxolo Witvoet.

For me as someone using Metrorail/PRASA, it's affordable. It can take you from point a-z, and is affordable still. I believe if they can only just see and help [make sure] that the train is running per schedule, then everything will be fine. I'm happy with that they always deliver, they try their best, but what they can also do for us as commuters, is once in a while, they can offer some security in between the trains. That would be much appreciated.

Emihle

Photo by Luxolo Witvoet.

Spoken in IsiXhosa: Mna into endizithandayo ngo khwela I train yilento ba I train iyakhawuleza, yabo. Ixesha elininzi xa ihamba kakuhle iyakhawuleza. Yeyona transport ndiqondayo ukuba usuka e kuilsriver umzekelo uya e town, yeyona nto indifikisa fast, yabo. So ndithanda yona ngenxa yalonto. enye into endinothi ndiyithandela yona I train, I cheap futhi, yabo even if ayikho safe ncam but xa uyiqhelile marn awusoze utsho ayikho safe, cause uyayazi. Into endingayithandiyo nge train kuba abantu apha abekho, ndizothini? mandithi u prasa akakwazi uyi lawula le train, cause uzofumaniseka I train uyikhwela I overload, yabo.

Kanti mhlawumbi u PRASA ngezama yena ayazi ba I train ikhwelwa ngabantu abangaphi ngexesha elitheni, yabo. azoyazi uba mhlawumbi u organizer i train eziyi two eziye town nge xesha elinye. yah, so okanye, into enye endinothi andiyithandi nge train. Andithandi nalento I train se ingekho safe nje. Yilento ba mhlawumbi akho ne security aphe ekharejini nge khareji, yabo. Zikhe zitsho izecurity uhlaliswa pha esitishini imini yonke, kodwa siyaphela apha ngaphakathi ezi trainini, yabo. So mhlawumbi yeyona nto enotshintshwa leyo, uba okay kuziswe abantu, izecurity ezi qashelwe uba mazibe lapha ngaphakathi ezitrainini. zingabe zigadene nesitishi, noba ke zikhona ezigade isitishi, yabo. yinto echazayo uba ikhona I gap ekhoyo leyo, yabo, yah.

Translation: I like the fact that the train is fast. Most of the time, when it is functioning efficiently, it travels fast. It is the one transport that I consider using when I'm travelling from Kuilsriver to Cape Town because it can transport me within a short amount of time. The other thing I like about the train is the fact that it's cheap, although it might not be the safest.

What I don't like is that PRASA does not know how to manage the train. You will find that you get into the train and it's already overloaded. For instance, PRASA could try to calculate how many people are supposed to be within a train at a given time. That way they'll know whether to organize two trains that are traveling to Cape Town at the same time. Another thing I don't like is the fact that the trains are no longer safe. There is not even a single security [guard] inside each carriage. Instead, they make security spend the whole day guarding the train station—but we are dying inside the train carriages. They could improve on by introducing security inside the train carriages as well. There is a huge gap that needs to be filled.

Ghita 

Photo by Luxolo Witvoet.

Oh I hate the delays—and basically that's it. It's very cheap and convenient, but the delays mean that I get to work, say, two hours after I take the train. I leave home at five, and sometimes I don't get to work until past eight. In the evenings I get the train and I travel from Elsies River to Retreat, which should take me about an hour, but sometimes it takes me up to three hours just to get there. The difficult part is, I've got to change trains at Maitland. What happens is that either of the trains—the northern line or the Cape Flats line—one of the two is delayed on any given date or day. It's very inconvenient and sometimes the only way I can cope is to either swear or get frustrated—at the end it is not good for my health. But, what I love is that I make lots of friends, that's the part I enjoy the most.

​Xolile

Photo by Luxolo Witvoet.

Spoken in IsiXhosa: Mna, andifuni uxoka neh, andiyibhatali mna I train, andithengi tikiti, ndihamba nje for free, yabo. Nantso eyona nto endiyithandayo nge train and I cheap if ever maybe okanye kufuneka ndilithengile I tikiti, yabo. But eyona nto endiyithanday kuba andikhuphi mali nantso eyona nto endiyithandayo. Yoh hayi zihamba kakubi I train, sometimes uyilinde uve kuthwa ayifiki le ubuyilindile. Uphume ngo 8 endlini uyokufika ngo 1 emsebenzini, yabo. so ne crime, uyarojwa ez'trainini yabo, otsotsi banintsi, isecurity ayikho right. nantsi eyona nto endingayifuniyo, otherwise I right yabo.

Translation: I do not want to lie, I do not pay for train. I do not buy a ticket. I travel freely, which is what I like the most about the train. Also the fact that it is cheap if ever I do need to purchase a ticket. [What I dislike is] that sometimes they travel terribly. Sometimes, you'll be waiting and you'll hear that the train you've long been waiting for is no longer arriving. You leave your home at 8AM only to arrive at work at 1PM. And the crime—people get robbed in the trains. There are too many delinquents and criminals and there is no security. That's what I don't like about it. Otherwise everything else is alright.

Zimbini

Photo by Luxolo Witvoet.

Spoken in IsiXhosa: I train neh, andiyikhweli kuba ndiyithanda or anything or ndiya enjoya ukhwela kuyo. It's just that yeyona transport e affordable and especially for mna, ndifunda kude, so I taxi zi expensive, andikwazi ukuyi afford. And then into endingayi thandiyo ngayo is that ayikho safe as much as iyeyona transport I cheaper, but ayikho safe at the same time, anything can happen anytime. Iba ingaba safe qha, ingaba ndiyayi thanda ke yah.

Translation: I do not take the train because I like to, or because I enjoy traveling with it. It's just that it's the most affordable transport—especially for me, since I study far away. The taxis are expensive and I can't afford them. The thing I do not like about the train is the fact it is not always safe, although it is the most affordable transport. Anything can happen at any given time. If it could be safer, I would actually like it.

Malcolm 

Photo by Luxolo Witvoet.

I enjoy taking the train in the morning at five or twenty to six. I like taking it to Cape Town. If I come back, maybe at eleven or twelve in the morning, I take the train to Netreg—nowhere else. When the train is late then you must struggle going to work and all that stuff—that's what I don't like.

Madoda

Photo by Luxolo Witvoet.

Spoken in IsiXhosa: no kaloku i train mfondini i affordable fori mna kaloku because I'm unemployed. Then andinayo imali ye taxi, uyobona, uyaqonda. Whereas, kungekho safe ukhwela i train, because zi too much i robbery ezenzekayo e trainini which is, siya riska ngobomi bethu sometimes. But ke kuba ke singena mali yokhwela ezinye izinto. itrain is at least better kengoku, uyabona. so Enkosi.

Translation: The train is the most affordable, particularly because I am currently unemployed and I do not have the means to afford traveling with a taxi for instance. [Right now] it is not safe to travel with the train, because there are too many robberies happening. We are risking our lives sometimes by traveling on the train, but since we cannot afford to travel with other modes of transportation, the train is at least better.

Brendon

Photo by Luxolo Witvoet.

There's not really much to like, it's unfortunately—I wouldn't say that it's convenient—but it's the cheapest form of transport. It's not as safe as it used to be, but it's still the cheapest. If I had any other way, I would definitely choose another alternative. There's a lot to mention, but just the sudden inconveniences whereby you might think you're early one moment and then you're stuck between stations for hours on end.

But, before I forget, one thing I do like about the trains is the different individuals that you meet. I like the different cultures of people and the vendors. You never know what you might, or who you might encounter on the trains. It's really nice to see different people. That's what I like about it.

Carlene

Photo by Luxolo Witvoet.

In my case, the reason why I like taking the train today is because it's an adventure. You get to see all the different places. That's why I like the most about taking the train. [What I don't like] is that it's not the safest because of the crime. If they could have a better security procedure [it would help].

​Nkosinathi

Photo by Luxolo Witvoet.

Spoken in IsiXhosa: Ndiyayithanda ngoba i cheap, iyafikeleleka, but andithandi ngoluhlobo zihamba ngayo.

Translation: For a fact, I like it because it is cheap and affordable. but lately I do not like the way they have been functioning.

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Angelique Kidjo performs onstage during the 62nd Annual GRAMMY Awards Premiere Ceremony at Microsoft Theater on January 26, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic)

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This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The Grammys were a big moment. Why did you decide to dedicate your award to Burna Boy and acknowledge the new generation of up-and-coming African artists?

I'm always in contact with my continent. I go back on a regular basis, and that's where my source of inspiration is from. Throughout the years going back and forth, I've been seeing the entrepreneurship of the young generation coming up. When I started music—there was none of that. You just went to the studio, and you found people to help you do your music. Now you can be a self-producer. I have nephews and nieces, and I'll just say "Ok, what's new? Let me listen to the new stuff." And I just realized that the rest of the world has no clue about what's happening in Africa.

Four years ago, when I received my Grammy for the album Sings, I said "Brace yourself, because Africa is coming. You have to open your heart, your mind and ears to listen to what is going on and what is coming from the new generation of my contient"— I said that four years ago, and the time has come because [with artists like] Burna Boy, Wizkid, Davido, Yemi Alade and many more from Nigeria, and Sho Madjozi from South Africa—you have so much happening culturally in Africa. I have the feeling that sometimes people just completely turn their head away from Africa and I just wonder how one could possibly turn their head away from where they come from, because Africa is the cradle of humanity. Culture comes from there—there's no music on this planet that doesn't have Africa in it.

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Is this why you've chosen to work with a lot of younger artists from the continent like Yemi Alade most recently?

I'm so proud of this new generation of musicians that are using the technology to tell a positive story about Africa. It's no longer about our suffering. Everybody suffers. So, why should people be focusing only on our suffering and not seeing just the human beings that we are, and how joyful we are? Then suddenly, you realize that joy becomes political because if your society, your people are perceived as joyful, then a leader cannot complain anymore that something is wrong. Beyond all that, [I do it] to pay tribute to the entrepreneurship of the young generation. They aren't waiting on help from anybody. If you are famous in your country and on your continent, there's nothing that can stop you. You have billions of people that will love you, so why should the rest of the world look aside when you're passing by? They should pay attention.

That's why I use my platform to bring the attention of the media to this new generation coming. They don't want to be caught by surprise because I've been telling them to pay attention. If something happens, and they don't pay attention, at least I've done my work.

I do think it's really amazing how new artists have been able to gain traction and put their music out despite their not being a lot of support by African leaders for creative industries. Do you think that African governments, and the folks with money should invest more entertainment?

I think they should because we create jobs. People make money, and it's not only the artists. There's also the people helping them make videos, or cut tracks—music creates jobs.

I think we have to educate our leaders and our business people in Africa. Who can carry their brand better than us? Who are the best ambassadors of our cultures, our countries and our continent? It's us artists across different forms of art, from painters, to storytellers, to people in theatre and movies. Every form of art is about telling the story of ordinary people and the people that have come before us. How do you know about your own history, if not for the elderly people that tell you the story of who you are?

In order for us to tell our story, we need to have a voice. We need to say it through different mediums. Music is one of them. We shouldn't let anyone else tell our stories anymore. That time in history has passed. We have new narratives, we have proof of how entrepreneurial we are. Africans can make money in Africa and anywhere else. The world is open to us—the world is ours. No one can stop us.

So many African artists look to you as an inspiration and a model for longevity in the music industry. I'm wondering which artists served that role for you when you were first coming up.

There are many, many of them. I would say it started with traditional musicians because I was a very curious child. I come from that background of traditional musicians telling me stories through songs. [Growing up] my brothers were playing music, my father brought the instruments for them, and freed a room in a crowded house for them to rehearse. I heard every genre of music in the '60, '70s and '80s through them, but my role models start with traditional musicians, both male and female. [But at a certain point] I noticed that every album that would be brought home had just men on the covers. I was like, "Okay, so women don't sing? They can't do albums too?" Then you had Western women start coming in and I was like, "Okay, at least some women are making it through [in the industry]."

Then Miriam Makeba came and Aretha Franklin came. The day Aretha Franklin came, the singer of my brother's band—who had such a fucking ego, you couldn't even put it anywhere—said "there's no song I can't sing." [But] Aretha came and he couldn't sing. I'm like, "What? A woman is whooping your butt. I like that."

So, there have been strong men and women as musicians that have informed the music that I make today. The only way I could absorb it and make my own music, and become a role model to others today is because I am proud of my culture. I know where I come from, I'm not trying to copy anybody because everybody copied what we have. There wouldn't be any music in America without the input of enslaved people that came from Africa. The blues came from slaves. It doesn't matter how hard the slave owner wanted to dehumanize us—they even took the drum away from us. But we had many ways of celebrating culture. We had many ways of celebrating our humanity—singing was one of them. We sing our pain to lift it up. We sing our joy to share it with people. That's what African music is. The essence of what music is comes from that place. We've seen it all, we've been through hell, yet here we are prevailing still.

"I have to be able to sing my songs till I die."

You've always championed African culture and identity, whether it's through singing in Yoruba, or representing Benin through various endeavors. Did you at any point, ever face pressure from the industry to tone down your "Africanness" to appeal to certain audiences?

They have a saying in my country, that "the advisor is not the payer." [It's about] what you do with the advice people give you. I'm always listening, I'm always ready to sit and hear constructive criticism. But if you want to critique for the sake of criticizing me—I've heard some journalists say that I'm not African enough in France because my music sounds too Western. I said, "What is the music of the West then? Tell me." Take Africa out of it and there's no music for y'all.

For me, I respect everybody, particularly the differences because there lies the genius. We all don't think the same.

People said, "Why don't you show your titties?" I'm like, "Well, I don't feel like showing my titties because my titties ain't singing. My voice is not in my breasts." You've got to be somebody, and I am African. I come from a rich culture. Why should I change to look like what? What do you want me to look like? I've never ever allowed anyone to say to me, "You can't do this." I have fought some producers that try to change my music. I say, "If that's the case, you take the microphone, you sing, it's not mine, I'm out of here." You have to stand for something. If you are afraid of not making it, then you become a fool to somebody.

People will say what they want to say. If I want to dress differently, I do sometimes. When I received the NAACP award, I wore a suit. A well-tailored suit, and I kill it too in a suit. It's not what you wear, it's who you are.

I always say, if anyone wants to work with me, I'm open. The bridge I'm trying to build, everybody's welcome on it in the respect of each other's differences. My strength might be your weakness, and then I supply. My weakness might be your strength. It goes both ways. I don't have the answer to everything, but one thing I know is that if we stop bitching at each other and blaming people for all the things that aren't good in our life will be better off because when we start doing that, what do we do? We create fear, and fear is dangerous.

I wanted to ask you about the controversy surrounding the Best World Music category at the Grammys. Many believe that it doesn't truly encompass the diversity of music coming from the continent. What are your thoughts on the matter?

Don't underestimate the recording academy. They have been thinking about it way before this. It's a conversation that we're going to be engaging in. Africa is not a country, it's a continent. The Latin Grammy exists. We should have the African Grammys too, because it's a continent, because it's vast, it's huge. So, it's a conversation we started having because the academy is also realizing this, and they are, at least, having that conversation. Right now, if you look at the "French Grammys" coming up, there's not one person of African descent [represented]. Not one. They just completely ban what is called "world music" out of it and we're in the 21st century. So, I think criticizing is one thing, finding solutions is another.

Let's work with the recording academy and find out how we can help to come up with something that works for everybody. That's all I'm about. I'm always about solutions. The thing is that we also need to recognize that we cannot be discriminating when it comes to culture. If we don't speak to each other, and we're always blaming and pointing fingers, there's no conversation possible anymore. We should have an open discussion about this and be creative about it. That's all I say.

Speaking on shifting genres, you recently worked with Pablo Nouvelle on his new project Eliso, I saw it described as your "maiden venture into electronic music." What was that experience like for you?

I started with electronic music. If you ask David Byrne, he would tell you that my first album, Logozo was completely electric, but African electric. So for me, working on this album brings me back to the beginning and, I'm not done doing that. I'm going to do it more.

So, we can expect a lot more of this electronic sound that you've already been working on?

I'm not saying anything.

We can't have a hint?

No, nothing, because I always follow my inspiration. If my inspiration changes a little bit, I have to change [my direction].

You just go with whatever feels right?

I have to be able to sing my songs till I die. All my songs, if I can't sing them, with just my voice and a guitar, it means it's not good. When writing a song, less is more because if you add too much stuff, then you kill the song. You're overstating it. Do the minimal. If it feels good to you, and you can sing it in your sleep, wake up dancing to it, and you can feel it in every beat in your body, it's right.

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