South Africa


Unpacking Easter Sunday’s train arson in Cape Town

Smoke billows from a burning train at the Cape Town train station on Easter Sunday, 21 April 2019. Photo: Leila Dougan

Cape Town’s first train fire in six months occurred on Sunday afternoon — confirmed by Prasa to be an arson attempt — just two weeks before the elections. One person has been arrested by the police, but officials have blamed ‘sinister forces’ and national government for another attack on Cape Town’s vulnerable rail network.

On Sunday 21 April 2019 a fire swept through Platforms 13 and 14 at the Cape Town station and destroyed two much-needed coaches. In the aftermath, political parties and government officials have played the blame game over which “sinister force” was behind the arson. One person has been arrested and is due to appear in court soon.

The last train fire occurred in early October 2018 — while Parliament’s Transport Committee held a meeting to discuss precisely that — train fires and arson at Metrorail, a subsidiary of the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa). Between 2015 and 2018, there were 175 train fires in Cape Town. Sunday’s fire brings that number to 176.

What happened on Sunday 20 April?

According to a statement from Prasa, a fire at the Cape Town station was reported to have started just before 4pm on Easter Sunday, effectively closing down two platforms. By 7pm the fire had been contained.

Prasa confirmed two coaches were destroyed — the damage is estimated to be about R33-million. Alongside the two destroyed coaches, 300m of cable needed for manual train control was damaged.

Cape Town train services were halted, but have resumed. There were no reports of injury to staff or commuters.

Initial indications point to arson as the cause of the fires,” said Sipho Sithole, Prasa’s group chief strategy officer. “The fires are a clear setback to Metrorail Western Cape.”

GroundUp reported on Tuesday morning, two days after the fire, that “the smell of charred iron and smoke still filled the station” where commuters were making their way to work.

What are the officials saying?

The ANC in the Western Cape described the fire as a crime perpetrated on the people. ANC provincial secretary Faiez Jacobs said:

The perpetrators should be charged, brought to court, convicted and given the maximum prison sentences that can be imposed for these crimes. A clear message must be sent out that our nation will not allow sabotage to go unpunished.”

Mayor of Cape Town Dan Plato immediately pointed out that the rail network was not the local or provincial government. Plato said that while the city, Prasa and the provincial government had formed the Rail Enforcement Unit, the rail network was primarily the responsibility of the national government.

Despite the unit seeing successes, “clearly Prasa and Metrorail need to invest much more to keep our trains and commuters safe. Not doing so is outright negligence”, said Plato.

(Read in Daily Maverick: At last, a unit to protect Cape Town’s trains and rail infrastructure)

National Transport Minister Blade Nzimande said the attack was intended to destabilise the efforts of the government. The minister described the attack as “well-orchestrated” and appealed to law enforcement agencies to investigate.

Nzimande said the attacks were meant to disrupt the gains of the governing party:

It is also clear that this force is relentless and determined to reverse the ANC government gains and efforts being made to modernise Metrorail service, particularly in the Cape Town metro corridor.”

One of the biggest unions at Prasa, the United National Transport Union, said the incident could have been prevented if president Cyril Ramaphosa and Nedlac had agreed to deploy the defence force to protect rail infrastructure and Prasa platforms.

It is a war zone out there against a third force unknown to us. The South African Police Service simply does not have the manpower, the necessary crime intelligence or the skills to combat the ongoing arson attacks on the trains,” the union said.

Rail activist coalition #UniteBehind told Daily Maverick it strongly condemned the attack. There needed to be more co-ordination between spheres of government as well as the declaration of commuter rail as a national disaster.

Delays, cancellations, overcrowding and unsafe trains are already the major issues facing commuters and this latest arson attack will only deepen the crisis. Commuters are already facing so many challenges on a daily basis and it is costing them their jobs, mental wellness and sometimes even their lives,” the coalition said.

What happens next?

According to Prasa, the arrested suspect will appear in court on Wednesday, April 24.

This has been welcomed by Prasa, Plato and #UniteBehind.

But #UniteBehind told Daily Maverick:

We need to focus on the safety of the commuters. We still don’t have a commuter-centred safety plan, which we have been calling for since 2017. All spheres of government need to put commuters first and work together as well as with civil society to #FixOurTrains.”

The United National Transport Union said:

If the Western Cape does not consider trains as essential infrastructure, then there is no hope for the cheapest and safest form of transport in the province.” DM


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