Trains in the Western Cape a ‘national disaster’‚ says advocacy group

10 September 2018 - 17:14 By Philani Nombembe And Aron Hyman
The #UniteBehind organisation wrote to Transport Minister Blade Nzimande and asked him to declare the rail network‚ which has been under siege from “saboteurs” a national disaster.
The #UniteBehind organisation wrote to Transport Minister Blade Nzimande and asked him to declare the rail network‚ which has been under siege from “saboteurs” a national disaster.
Image: Gallo Images

The criminal history of security guards tasked with rail commuters’ safety has come under scrutiny following the robbery and murder of a passenger in the Western Cape on Friday.

#UniteBehind – an association of people’s movements and legal policy and research support organisations – came out guns blazing on Monday. The organisation wrote to Transport Minister Blade Nzimande and asked him to declare the rail network‚ which has been under siege from “saboteurs” who have burned tens of coaches‚ a national disaster.

Last month‚ Metrorail revealed that 149 carriages had been burned since May 2015.

The Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) claimed at the weekend that the attack was "not merely a robbery" and attributed it to a gang of saboteurs.

Cape Town councillor Brett Herron‚ who is responsible for transport‚ said commuters who were travelling between Lyndock and Eerste River were attacked on Friday and one of them‚ a man‚ was killed during the robbery.

“Eight other commuters were also robbed of the very little belongings they had on them‚ and thrown off the train‚” said Herron.

“One commuter was found with a broken knife blade embedded in his head. I am shocked beyond words by the horrific details of this latest attack. Cape Town’s rail commuters‚ who are among the most vulnerable in our society‚ are facing an onslaught of violence on a daily basis‚” he added.

#UniteBehind’s Matthew Hirsch said research conducted by his organisation had revealed that 2‚000 security guards employed by Prasa – both insourced and outsourced – had criminal records‚ which put commuters at risk. Hirsch said they were also not registered with the private security industry regulatory authority (PSIRA).

“We are angry about the latest attacks‚” said Hirsch. “But we are not surprised because it is an issue of political failure within Prasa. It basically stems from 10 years of criminal networks. We are declaring this a national disaster. We have written to the transport minister and emphasised this. Commuters are injured on a daily basis and there needs to be accountability from all spheres of government in this regard.”

Prasa spokesperson Nana Zenani said the parastatal relied on war veterans who fought in the struggle against apartheid for some of their security needs‚ and that they had criminal records from the previous regime.

“Prasa has veterans. Most of the guys who were convicted under the apartheid laws‚ including our head of security who was sentenced to death. It takes time for Private Security Industry Regulatory Authority to have those security guards processed‚” said Zenani.

But Hirsch said this was cold comfort for commuters.

“This is what they have been saying for a long time. But the problem is that there is no way for us to know the backgrounds of those security personnel because many of them are not registered with PSIRA‚” said Hirsch.

He said the organisation understood the issues with the Mkhonto weSizwe veterans‚ but that “there needs to be checks on all those security personnel and they need to be officially registered and they need to be qualified and competent”.

Meanwhile‚ there seems to be an impasse between the city and Metrorail over the establishment of a special policing unit to guard the trains‚ which will cost R47.9-million to operate annually.

In scathing statement on Sunday‚ Herron expressed “exasperation” with Prasa’s failure to honour its undertaking.

“In May 2018 Prasa signed a memorandum of agreement and committed to co-fund this special unit together with the city and the Western Cape provincial government. The city and the provincial government have stepped up to the plate and offered unprecedented assistance to Metrorail commuters.

"We have done so because our commuters are our residents and they are required to commute under unacceptable‚ dehumanising and unsafe conditions.

“Despite Prasa’s obligation‚ as confirmed by the Constitutional Court‚ to ensure a safe public transport service and all of our efforts to assist them to honour their obligation‚ we are still awaiting Prasa’s contribution of R16-million. We have sent several urgent reminders to the Prasa executive to fulfill their duties and to honour their commitment.

"Given that we are R16-million short the city had to cut down on the number of recruits for this enforcement unit who will be focusing on the safety and security of Metrorail commuters and infrastructure. As local government we are already going beyond our mandate to contribute and fund a solution that is the sole responsibility of national government‚” said Herron.

Prasa spokesperson Zino Mihi said in a statement that it was engaging with the city on the promised R16-million.

"Prasa is still trying to understand what has been a sustained attack and vandalism of infrastructure in the Western Cape. This sudden shift to attacking innocent citizens‚ who are soft targets‚ is unbearable and is condemned with the strongest terms‚" Prasa chairperson Khanyisile Kweyama was quoted as saying in the statement.

The statement added that that the attack at the weekend was meant to "deliberately inflict so much pain not only to the victims and their families"‚ and that the "gang" was also "hell bent on ensuring that this public transport system grounds to a halt".

Prasa said that safety of commuters and staff “remain one of our key priorities”.

It said it had demonstrated its commitment to passenger and staff safety by implementing additional security initiatives‚ including:

  • Armed guards on the Central Line;
  • Deployment of a response unit in the Langa‚ Bonteheuwel‚ Nyanga and Heideveld corridor for the protection of assets‚ commuters and staff;
  • The deployment of drones technology equipment;
  • Deployment of security resources in conjunction with the Rapid Rail Police Unit (RRPU); and
  • Our Protection Services department forms part of the SAPS Provincial Planning Structures whereby we also plan around visible policing requirements in identified hot spot areas.