Gautrain: A carrier of more than just passengers

Promoting more than a train ride: The Gautrain billboard which perpetuates racial stereotypes against Africans.

(This article was originally published in The Star newspaper, Johannesburg on September 6, 2011.)

A Gautrain billboard along WilliamNicol Drive in the Johannesburg northern suburb of Bryanston once more got me thinking about advertising messages, their symbols and societal norms and values. The billboard message screams: “New African Time! Centurion to Sandton in 19 minutes”.

One of the contentious issues in media and communications discourse which straddles across several disciplines is the ideological or value judgement inherent in media content. The contention is that, whether they are conscious of it or not, workers in ideas such as academics, teachers, writers, journalists and other communications practitioners, bring their value judgements to bear in the exploits of their labour because they are social beings who have come to internalise some values and discarded others in the inherently contested process of social interaction.

Judgement need not necessarily be overt. It is often subtle, manifested perhaps in jest or flippancy in relation to particular events or phenomena. The advertising industry is more adept at this kind of communication than other areas of communications.

The regular thematic advertising output by fast food chicken franchise, Nandos, illustrates the engaging power that advertising messages exert on consumer decision-making. If the exploitation of these themes did not add any value to the fortunes of the Nandos’ brand or its revenues, the franchise would not bother to commission the advertisements.

It would equally not make sense if the advertisements did not reflect some connection between what Nandos rightly or wrongly believe exists between the social themes in question and the consumption of roasted chicken or the simple act of assuaging hunger.

A more appropriate example for purposes of a discussion on the value-laden subtitles implicit in advertising messages is t-shirt producer, Laugh it Off Promotions’ two-year legal battle (2003 – 2005) with Black Label brewer, South African Breweries (SAB). Laugh It Off substituted SAB’s slogan: “America’s lusty, lively beer, Carling Black Label beer, enjoyed by men around the world” with the commentary: “Black Labour White Guilt, Africa’s lusty lively exploitation since 1652, no regard given worldwide”.

Although the Constitutional Court ruled in Laugh it Off’s favour, finding neither infringement nor dilution on the Black Label brand, Judge Albie Sachs noted that Laugh it Off’s t-shirt campaign “was part of a genuine attempt to critique the status quo in our society” and added that large businesses and “their trademarks represent highly visible and immediately recognisable symbols of societal norms and values”.

Beyond the fact that Gautrain ferries passengers from Centurion to Sandton in 19 minutes, the message of its billboard is barely veiled. It confirms a centuries’ old stereotype about Africans’ inability to keep time, which is thought to be inherently genetic; for which a solution in the form of Gautrain has, happily, finally been found.

This stereotype is part of an avalanche of deliberate misrepresentations of Africa and the Africans which have been peddled by racists since the advent of the Atlantic slave trade. Its bold re-appearance as part of Gautrain communications messages illustrates racism’s abiding hold on our society. So, in addition to passengers, Gautrain is sadly an unwitting carrier of racist norms, value-producing mythologies and stereotypes.

In a country whose history has been defined largely by racism for more than 350 years, this should hardly be surprising. But for a public utility such as Gautrain to make itself an accomplice in the perpetuation of racist stereotypes is a tragic failure of judgement.

Some might argue that the message seeks to do no more than poke fun at the stereotype of African time. That would be fair enough. However, making fun of a racial stereotype without critically reflecting on its inherent assumptions has the consequence of perpetuating the stereotype.

This is to say nothing of the fact that Gautrain is not South Africa’s fastest mode of transport. Or that since it is Africa’s first and only existing rapid rail link, South Africa must, according to the logic, represent a privileged exception from the rest of the continent, suggesting that African time lives on elsewhere.

Hopefully Gautrain, a creature whose existence should on its own, put paid to rest racial stereotyping, will become a carrier of passengers and a new civilisation underpinned by appreciation of the equality and respect of all human beings. And so might its leadership spare us the insults of a billboard of an era gone by.

Mukoni Ratshitanga

September 6, 2011

See this comment by a reader of The Star:


2 thoughts on “Gautrain: A carrier of more than just passengers

  1. Mukoni
    Its messages such as these, hidden in Song , in text , nuanced , intimated , or even just uttered plainly , It is for our amusement and ultimately our manipulation into accepting an inferior state or ourselves :
    In this case the rest of us who have not enjoyed the whooosh of the Gautrains 19 minute dash , the general society of domestics , laborers , teachers , cashiers . all of us; take up to three hours in commute to get to various industries that propell this economy or (at least make it comfortable) using a non existant transport system while the already privilleged park their SUV’s at the train station and continue their ride uninterrupted by the masses in overcrowded unsafe taxis …we have not made any great strides in erradicating the ills of society since the countries first and strongest GDP contributor the “working class” is still treated like dirt .need i mention Marikana here ?

    Are we as a society trying to intergrate ” yes ” heck we work together .. is our environment conducive to an intergrated society ” No’ we have been brought to laugh at ourselves for the benefit of amusement and or advertising ; point in mind ‘ our State Broadcaster the “sabc” coining loose and de-educating the very core of our society: sabc1 “s Slogan” Mzansi Fo sho “!!! this chanell is primarily aimed at the African native to : to educate inform and entertain by feeding us half baked Language ,bad material and lacking in creativity.

    Are we hoping to create and inspire intellectuals and scientists ,artists ,astronauts , mathematicians or presidents if we proceed on this trajectory of watering down our education system or totally letting it go to the gutters ( excuse the pun )Limpopo in mind ,
    instead of raising standards so that future generations can thank us for uplifting and creating an education sytem worth the paper its printed on : we are busy excusing incompetence and rewarding mediocrity why water down or even abbreviate a language only to make it easy to destroy a nation .

    Mduduzi Mofokeng ; continua …..

  2. Thank you for the interesting read. But I must say I thought it was about the fact that we somehow found money for such an expensive mode of transport. While millions of train commuters across the country travel in unsafe conditionds, thanks to Prasa’s ineffeciency every day. Coming to the issue of African time. Most Africans i know do not have respect for time. It has always been like that and i do not see anything changing. Do i blame advertising agencies for it? No. They reflect on what the society is all about. There are stereotypes that irritate me though in adverts. I hate how they portray black women, as these loud, illiterate and unsopjisticated wome who will dance at the sight of a KFC box. Where i come froma nd where i live, yes in Khayelitsha, i have never seen people speak so loud and dancing for food. It irritates the hell out of me. Certain food products are advertised by complete white families with a mom and dad. While ours will have a granny, mom and kids.

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