Bonelwa Mangala, a cleaner from Somerset West, walked into the Chris Hani train station in Khayelitsha at around 5.40am on Tuesday. She had taken a taxi to the Chris Hani station to board a train to Cape Town, where she works as a cleaner. She needed to be at work at 7.30am.
Mangala had been taking the train for around eight years, she said. It is cheaper than taking a taxi –it’s R60 per day by taxi but R 190 for a monthly train taxi between Khayelitsha and the Cape Town CBD.
Mangala, the sole breadwinner in her family – her brother, sister and two children – told Daily Maverick that although the train is a more affordable alternative, it is not safe. In May, while commuting, Mangala was robbed of her cellphone and wallet on the train.
When Mangala got to the Chris Hani station, the 5am train was still stationary – at 6.18am. The train eventually departed from Khayelitsha at around 6.45am.
Besides the usual delays and commuter frustration, her Tuesday trip was also more chaotic due to the entourage of security and media circulating around the new transport minister, Fikile Mbalula, who was undertaking his maiden trip on board Mangala’s train along the Cape Town’s Central Line.
While Mbalula’s trip in Khayelitsha was slightly delayed, members of rail activist coalition #UniteBehind door-stopped him to sign a memorandum of demands. Their demands included the appointment of a permanent board and permanent executive management at the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) and the declaration of rail services as a national disaster.
After Lumkile Sizila from #UniteBehind read the memorandum to the new minister, Mbalula said he would meet #UniteBehind “in the coming days” and also told the media and a few commuters gathered, “If we can get a war room for Eskom, we can get one for Prasa.”
After an hour’s delay, the train finally departed from Khayelitsha towards Langa. Commuters at various stations climbed on board, squeezing between police, department officials and journalists.
There was a heavy police presence on the trains, which have become unsafe for commuters. Commuters were excited when they heard that the new minister was on the same train with them. He was accompanied by a delegation that included deputy minister Dikiledi Magadzi and Metrorail Regional Manager, Richard Walker.
Things got chaotic at Philippi Station. Aside from the delays over a pantograph hook-up due to cable theft, two people had been struck by a train at Nyanga station, which prevented Mbalula’s train from moving further than Phillipi station. To make things worse, there was no electricity at the station, so the station was cold and dark at 7:30 on a winter’s morning.
This caused frustration and anger from commuters who had seen the media and security personnel rush after Mbalula, who then left the train and was then driven to Langa station where he was due to make an announcement on how he would jack up services on the troubled Central Line.
This announcement and Mbabula’s train ride were due to take place last Friday, after the State of the Nation Address by President Cyril Ramaphosa, but was cancelled at the last minute due to “another urgent official engagement by the State President”.
(Read in Daily Maverick: As Ramaphosa talks bullet trains, Mbalula set to focus on putting Metrorail back on track)
On Tuesday, all eyes were on Mbalula’s announcement at Langa station. After receiving memorandums from United Commuters Voice and the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union (SATAWU – the biggest union at Prasa) – Mbalula said: “I’m here to fix things.”
Within three months, there would be a new board appointed to Prasa. Safety would be addressed – even if it meant talking to Police Minister Bheki Cele about making use of Tactical Response Training officials to provide safety to commuters.
“My immediate responsibility is fixing the rail service for the working class,” said Mbalula, who added that a war room would be established at a provincial and national level to deal with the rail crisis. Mbalula said there would be more security on trains – but would not specify how many security officers there would be or where they would come from. By August 2020, the Western Cape would get 22 more new trains.
Mbalula didn’t elaborate when or where the war room would be established or if the current interim board would become its permanent board, but said: “We need stability as a starting point, not only at Prasa but at all the departments and entities under us.”
Will all this talk of safety and fixing the rail services bring comfort to fatigued commuters like Mangala and those waiting at Philippi station, and at other stations across Cape Town and in South Africa? DM