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Who has the most to gain from destroying commuter rail networks?


Ismail Lagardien is a writer, columnist and political economist with extensive exposure and experience in global political economic affairs. He was educated at the London School of Economics, and holds a PhD in International Political Economy.

Let us suppose that the burning of commuter trains is pure vandalism and criminality. It really is difficult to see what the motive would be: there seems to be little pecuniary gain from burning train carriages.

In last Thursday’s State of the Nation Address (SONA), President Cyril Ramaphosa singled out the repair of “commuter rail” as a “key priority”.

“A key priority this year is to fix commuter rail, which is vital to our economy and to the quality of life of our people… our rail network daily transports over a million commuters to and from work. We are modernising Prasa’s rail network. The Central Line in the Western Cape and the Mabopane Line in Pretoria have been closed for essential refurbishment and upgrades. We are investing R1.4-billion in each of these lines to provide a safe, reliable and affordable service,” Ramaphosa said.

He was, of course, correct. It’s almost passé to repeat that the railway network forms the basis of all economic expansion, growth, distribution, consumption and general mobility. It gets people to their homes and places of work, it gets raw materials to production facilities, and consumer products, from food to clothing, to and from markets. 

But that is the big picture. This big political economic picture has little meaning to the atomistic individual taxi driver, who has no interest in mass commuter transportation. The fewer commuter trains – or public transport in general – there are, the more people are forced to use taxis.

On another level, building rail transportation networks – to move heavy loads of goods from roads, which are expensive to build and maintain, to rail – is of no interest to individual truck owners or operators.

This is the problem with the belief that free enterprise necessitates a greedy individual, interested only in utility maximisation (narrow self-interest). This “free enterprise” was unleashed in the minibus taxi industry, and there is little to no chance of it being brought into an area such as the provision of public goods and services – or that most abstract of ideas, “the national interest”.

I asked a taxi driver on the Hanover Park line what he thought about this and he stated that he did not trust “them” because “they” were only in it for themselves. He referred to the national government. He then told me the story of how his niece lost her position as a senior nurse (with 18 years’ experience) because she was coloured, and in her place “they brought someone from the Eastern Cape” whom his niece had to train, so she could be the senior nurse. 

They also called his niece to translate Afrikaans for the nurse from the Eastern Cape. This was sufficient evidence, for the taxi operator, to believe that the government was not interested in the plight of individuals, and cared only for “hulle eie mense” (their own people). By accident or design, the idea of the “national interest” or the “common good” is completely lost in an unfettered free market.

Then there are political and public administration dimensions. If we take only Cape Town, and the destruction of commuter trains, there are at least three issues that stand out. 

The first is the politically driven monster that wants the Democratic Alliance (DA) in the Cape Town and the Western Cape to fail. For that to happen, it is necessary to destroy infrastructure, and effectively make it impossible for the DA to “run” the city or the province.

It is important to remember that the majority of train commuters are black people, very many of whom are fed a steady dose of political poison about the DA being interested only in the well-being of white people – notwithstanding empirically verifiable evidence that the liberals have, in the past decade or so, built homes and provided services for tens of thousands of people in and around informal settlements. But just pointing to that is considered treasonous.

Second, at an administrative level – this is more at the level of public service – let us suppose that the burning of commuter trains is pure vandalism and criminality. It really is difficult to see what the motive would be; there seems to be little pecuniary gain from burning train carriages. Unless there’s a market for vast amounts of ash, mangled metal and melted plastic. 

The point here is that if it is indeed criminality, the South African Police Service (SAPS) may be accused of incompetence. That is not too outlandish a statement. The SAPS has been identified as the least trusted of all government agencies. The SAPS is a national agency, and has, for the most part, been the blunt instrument of ANC corruption, maladministration and the general evaporation of professionalism, dedication to public service and ethics in the state.

This takes us to national politics. There are several forces at work who do not want Ramaphosa to succeed. From Carl Niehaus to Ace Magashule, Mosebenzi Zwane and any of those who remain indebted to former president Jacob Zuma, to the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), the head of the National Union of Metalworkers, Irwin Jim, to former “organic intellectuals” who fed at the trough that kept Zuma up, and who have now recast themselves as “the good guys”.

With particular reference to the EFF, there is a duality of political engagement. There is the face they show in Parliament, grotesque as it may be, and which operates within the conventions of a constitutional democracy. And then there is the EFF on the streets, in the malls, and on university campuses. This is straight out of the playbook of the old Soviet Union, which had formal diplomatic relations with the West, while the ruling Communist Party had relations with communists in countries like the US. 

You make nice in public (I’m not sure that applies neatly to the EFF, but never mind), while you cause disruption, subterfuge, and wilful destruction of property and human security by “ground forces”.

So. By August 2018, Metrorail’s train fleet in the Western Cape had lost an estimated 149 carriages (since May 2015) with the cost of the last two arson attacks alone amounting to at least R51-million. It was reported in December last year that the total cost of damage from arson attacks which saw 213 coaches go up in flames over the previous five years was estimated at R643-million.

Who, then, is to blame. Do we point a finger at minibus taxi operators? To vandals and arsonists? Are opposition politicians playing a “two-level game”: making nice in Parliament while letting their “ground forces” loose to make the country ungovernable? 

Julius Malema has said his EFF would make Gauteng ungovernable. He also warned, shortly after he was expelled from the ANC, that he would make mines ungovernable. The EFF’s Student Command has committed itself to shutting down universities if they are found to favour whites. Ungovernability is, then, a tactic of the EFF, that is part of its grand strategy to take power.

Any of the above are the likely culprits. Only one, the EFF, has expressly stated that they would not cooperate with Ramaphosa and would make parts of the country ungovernable. 

This should become a lot clearer, later in the year, when Malema formally declares working alliances with the likes of Irwin Jim’s Numsa, and other anti-capitalist, anti-Ramaphosa, anti-neoliberal, anti-white monopoly capital, and anti-anything else, other than themselves. 

For now, we can spare a thought for the workers who cannot get to work on time, or at all in the morning. DM


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