By Richard Kerama

Historical accounts try very hard to explain the legend of Cecil John Rhodes and the history of gold and diamond mining in South Africa, but still trip all over each other about the fellow’s first mine.

It is whispered that an Australian prospector named George Harrison must surely turn in his grave every financial year-end when Anglo-American, formerly De Beers reads its annual profits. All because the man sold (for a paltry £10) the prospector’s rights in 1867 to one Cecil John Rhodes, whose Anglo-American now reports billions of shillings in annual diamond sales.

When I recently toured South Africa courtesy of South African Tourism, I found that the story of De Beers and Cecil John Rhodes does not end there. It actually starts there. Mr Rhodes dreamt of a business empire that spanned from South Africa to Egypt by the Mediterranean and proposed a Cape-to-Cairo railway line to be built on the back of profits from the De Beers Consolidated Diamond Mines.

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Shedding the ox-pulled carriages, the then British Empire started building a Cape Town to Cairo highway called the Pan-African Highway, sometimes called the Great North Road through sub-Saharan Africa, an imperial dream. It would run through the British colonies then, through Kenya, Sudan and Egypt.

Rhodes preferred a railway line instead, but a combination of geographical, topographical, wildlife and political factors, both Cape to Cairo Railway and Road remain incomplete to this day.

Single-track

Currently, the East Africa Community has a roads master plan for Tanzania, Kenya, Sudan and Ethiopia to build sections passing through their respective countries. It has, nevertheless moved in fits and starts.

As Kenya struggles with modernising its single-track Mombasa to Malaba railway from the 1914 relic built by Indian coolies, questions are emerging as to the affordability. And as the Managing Director of Kenya Railways Mr Nduva Muli argued in this newspaper recently, is there perhaps need for a subway or
The Gautrain at the Oliver Tambo International Airport. [PHOTO: Richard kerama/ STANDARD

underground system like London or New York? When Kenya we get a subway or underground system like London or New York to ease the congestion in Nairobi and billions lost as cars idle in road traffic?

Mr Muli blames the traffic gridlock on "poor planning, cost of acquisition of land, and the conflict between road and rail on the surface" making it hard to consider for a viable surface rail system.

He, however, thinks an underground railway system is more viable in terms of time and money.

South Africa has gone a step further and utilised skills honed in the diamond mines to build a bullet electric train called the Gautrain.

The Gautrain is still a novelty, even among South Africans, being a state-of-the-art rapid rail network in Gauteng — South Africa’s economic heartland. It seeks to connect Pretoria, Johannesburg and Oliver Tambo International Airport.

The 80km engineering masterpiece hurtles at 160-180km/h, powered by an incredible overhead line of 25,000 volts.

Costing roughly 25 billion Rand, the rapid rail Gautrain is the biggest public-private partnership in South Africa and is also the biggest railway project under construction in the world.

Sections of it zoom 15 storeys underground, running an inter-city commuter service of at least six trains every hour in both directions, 18 hours a day.

Granted the Gautrain is still work-in-progress, it has eased traffic congestion, thereby cleaning pollution from the air above Gauteng, by keeping 100,000 commuters off the roads.

When complete, by the end of this year, the Gautrain project will have created over 90,000 jobs during construction and commissioning; employ 3,500 workers permanently and support 40,000 jobs and trades in the vicinity of the stations. The Gautrain is not in competition with taxis and private cars, but aims to provide alternative public transport to car users.

Is Rhodes’s dream of a Cape to Cairo Railway dead and buried?

Perhaps not. With developments like the Gautrain and the expected county plans for modern railway networks in Kenya’s devolved structure next year, the rail corridor from South to North might still be completed, both on the surface and overhead.

Like Mr Nduva proposes: "Let Governors of all counties with urban areas think at least 50 years ahead, but more appropriately 100 years ahead, to plan and provide for railway corridors for cities like Mombasa, Kisumu, Nakuru and Eldoret."

— Kerama is a Senior Editor with The Standard

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