It was a railway route to a dream - a dream very few people believed would ever come true. Yet a decade ago he started building it, bit by bit - until the steel rails finally started taking shape and all fell into place.
Now, at 5.24 am Tuesday 8 June, Jack van der Merwe (61) is among the first paying passengers on the Gautrain. The journey in Africa’s first underground train is from Sandton to OR Tambo Airport and it takes less than 15 minutes.
The civil engineer has been involved with the Gautrain as full-time project leader since 2004, and the success of the R25-billion project is due in no small measure to his unfaltering passion in everything he does.
“He’s a demanding man,” says Barbara Jensen, head of communications and marketing for the Gautrain project. “He knows what he wants and usually gets it.”
And he isn’t afraid to roll up his sleeves and put in long hours with his team, Barbara points out. But he would always make time for his wife, Lizette, and their three children. “Everyone knows there’s a time when you can phone Jack and there’s a time when he’s at home helping his kids with their maths homework.”
His greatest achievement would be to have made a difference in South Africa, Jack says. “You do something concrete. When I drive somewhere with the kids I can show them I built this or that building. I suppose everyone would like to leave something behind.”
For Gauteng commuters who get stuck in traffic day after day it’s still hard to believe it’s now possible to zip from the airport to the city - and soon from Pretoria to Johannesburg, the next stage in the project.
The train, he believes, will change everything. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime project and should change people’s perceptions of their city - but without fanfare, as if it had never been any different.
“When the train is operational you shouldn’t even be aware of it. You just jump on it and use it and every now and then ask yourself, ‘What would I have done without it?’ ”