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The Long March to Pretoria
Financial Mail (SA)[Monday, July 10, 2006 13:57]

By Jamie Carr

Last week a rail link between China and Tibet was opened. Linking the terminus of Golmud with the Tibetan capital of Lhasa required 1 110 km of track through terrain that offered the engineers a wee bit of a challenge. The highest point of the line is at 5 072 m above sea level, so the carriages on the train will have to be pressurised to prevent the passengers keeling over from lack of oxygen. The 30 000 workers on the project found themselves tunnelling through ice, using bottled oxygen, in temperatures as low as minus 35�C, yet it was completed within five years, at a cost of US$4bn.

The similarities between this engineering marvel and our beloved Gautrain are almost uncanny. The Gautrain route may be a touch shorter, at 80 km, but the latest estimate is that it is scheduled to take 4� years and cost a bargain $2,5bn. The Chinese had 550 km of permafrost to deal with, and as everybody knows it can get distinctly chilly on a Highveld winter's night. The Chinese were probably a little less concerned about the environmental impact than our lads, and would have had an altogether more robust attitude to the protests of the Muckleneuk/Lukasrand Property Owners' & Residents' Association, many of whom would now be enjoying a second career in a salt mine if they'd been doing their quibbling in China.

Yet the key policy consideration is the impact of an economically aggressive and modernising neighbour on an ancient and culturally marginalised society. Since the Chinese seized complete power in Tibet in 1959, the Tibetan people have struggled to maintain their unique Buddhist way of life in the face of repression from China. Many believe that the purpose of the railway is not the stated aim of trade and tourism, but rather to facilitate troop deployment, speed up colonisation, extract raw materials and generally tighten China's grip on the disputed territory.

Swap your saffron robes and your prayer wheels for your safari suits and your improbably tight shorts, and you get a glimpse of the future of Pretoria - whoops, I mean Tshwane. Protected for years by the insufferable congestion of the N1, the route to the capital will be clear once the Gautrain is thundering down the line, and there will be nothing to stop cash-crazed Jo'burgers from pillage and plunder.

Before you know what's going on the Vodacom Voortrekker Monument will be offering bungee jumps and foam parties, the Union Buildings will be given a tasteful Tuscan makeover and the State Theatre will become a combination of lap dancing club and opium den.

Some may say resistance is futile, and choose to shuffle off this mortal coil with a lethal cocktail of Klipdrift and koeksisters. But those bittereinders who choose to fight will need a leader, and surely many will have spotted the spooky physical resemblance between His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso and Natani�l.

Sceptics may say that the former is a universally admired Nobel prize winner and manifestation of the Bodhisattva of Compassion, while the latter is a high-camp entertainer with peculiar taste in make-up, but desperate times call for desperate measures. If Tshwane is not to become a northerly outpost of the all-conquering Johannesburg, the time to act is now.

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