Police 'unable' to prevent train arson in Western Cape: report

Ombud finds police failed to 'prevent, investigate and arrest perpetrators'

11 June 2020 - 19:10
By Claire Keeton
Arson attacks have destroyed 60% of commuter trains in Cape Town since 2015.
Image: Ruvan Boshoff Arson attacks have destroyed 60% of commuter trains in Cape Town since 2015.

Western Cape community safety MEC Albert Fritz on Thursday welcomed the findings of the province’s police ombudsman that “Saps is unable to prevent the vandalism of Metrorail trains”.

More than 60% of commuter trains have been torched in Cape Town since 2015 — reducing the fleet from more than 90 trains to 32 by January — and leaving passengers stranded and feeling unsafe.

Following a complaint, ombudsman Maj-Gen Johan Brand investigated the inability of Saps “to prevent, investigate and to arrest alleged perpetrators of the reported train burning incidents properly”.

The complaint was substantiated, he found.

“Saps was only able to arrest and process juvenile suspects for the burning of the trains thus far, with no link yet to any adults or organised groups,” the investigation revealed.

Fritz said no conviction had been recorded yet for the burning of trains in the province, nor any motive.

He requested the investigation on November 28 2019 after “a spate of arson attacks”  brought the railway infrastructure to the brink of collapse - and the police’s inability to stop them. The public was invited to comment from December 12.

“During the height of these attacks, commuters experienced a great sense of feeling unsafe and experienced serious delays and cancellations of trains, leaving them stranded,” he said.

Poll results show that 88.9% of respondents either sometimes or never see police on Metrorail trains or at stations — and 70.9% of respondents felt unsafe on trains or at stations — were raised in the investigation.

By 2010 there were 5,990 fewer police members at stations and on trains than back in 1986, when there were 6,422 railway police members aided by 2,800 railway police reservists, the commission heard.

The railway lost 3,190 permanent members and 2,800 reservists when the railway police were integrated into Saps because of “sustained pressure on limited policing resources in 1986,” said Fritz.

“The question of railway safety is all the more important as Prasa [the Passenger Rail Agency of SA] prepares to resume some of its services on July 1.”

Brand found that the Saps national commissioner and Prasa CEO “must have realised some of the inefficiencies when they signed a memorandum of understanding on February 5 2019”  — after 39 training burning incidents in which two people died and nearly R600m was lost.

“The current uncertainty concerning security contracts with Prasa, however, threatens to defeat the purpose of the memorandum.”

He said inefficiencies within Prasa had contributed “to a large extent to the inefficiency of the Saps to perform their [constitutional] mandate”.

The Western Cape Saps should implement appropriate steps to address the inefficiencies highlighted in the report, he recommended.

The standing committee of community safety, cultural affairs and sport in the Western Cape parliament should monitor whether “the efficiencies identified are indeed addressed by Saps” was another recommendation, said Fritz.

He said the report would be presented to this multiparty committee for it to review.