Defend Truth


Stop the politicking over control of Cape Town’s rail system and get down to the business of providing safe transport


Oscar van Heerden is a scholar of International Relations (IR), where he focuses on International Political Economy, with an emphasis on Africa, and SADC in particular. He completed his PhD and Masters studies at the University of Cambridge (UK). His undergraduate studies were at Turfloop and Wits. He is currently a Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Fort Hare University and writes in his personal capacity.

Cape Town’s central line is critical for ordinary working people on the Cape Flats, and yet it is completely inaccessible. Contributing to this sorry state of affairs are rampant cable theft, general stealing and destruction of infrastructure, the seemingly untouchable taxi associations and of course a healthy dose of politics on the part of the City of Cape Town.

Over the past few years, we have observed much corruption and malfeasance going on within our state-owned enterprises — and Transnet and its subsidiaries are no exception. The Passenger Rail Agency of SA, Prasa, is one such entity that has had its fair share of woes, the latest being blackmail by the taxi associations. 

I want to talk about the Western Cape in particular because it makes for interesting reading.

For years while I was growing up in Mitchells Plain, the railway remained an integral part of everyday life on the Cape Flats. For the most part, it is the most commonly used public transport and it was always affordable. Going to Cape Town to visit the Waterfront or to just walk around the Parade, you take the train. Going to work on the central line could mean getting off at stations such as Mutual, Pinelands, Maitland, Salt River and/or Woodstock. If you are going to varsity, whether it be UWC or Stellenbosch, you take the train.

This is a critical line for ordinary working people on the Cape Flats and yet it is completely inaccessible these days. Frankly, it’s unacceptable, to say the least.

What has happened over the past few years with this much-needed lifeline for so many of our people is that it was allowed to go to waste. I say again, it was allowed to go to waste. Incompetence at management level, no proper governance and constant expenditure shortages are but a few of the contributing factors. Contributing to this sorry state of affairs are rampant cable theft, general stealing and destruction of infrastructure, the seemingly untouchable taxi associations and of course a healthy dose of politics on the part of the City of Cape Town.

Where to begin? The authorities (government) have allowed a situation to develop where taxi associations can hold us, the citizens, to ransom. They simply block our highways and byways and don’t allow traffic to pass through until their demands are met. They regularly shoot at our buses when people prefer to commute on buses and not with them. They engage in warfare among themselves as taxi owners until the government must broker peace and concede certain demands and they don’t adhere to the normal road regulations and laws.

How many times have we experienced near-death encounters because taxis do as they please on our roads? It has become common practice during peak hour traffic that they drive as they want, and traffic authorities do nothing, for the most part. The vehicles they mostly use to transport passengers, sometimes over very long distances, are not roadworthy, but nothing gets done about it.

In short, the taxi associations have become a law unto themselves, a menace to our society and it is apparent that our government does not have the requisite skills, tenacity or willpower to effectively deal with this menace.

In Cape Town, I’m convinced that it is these taxi warlords who strongly encouraged our people to set up informal dwellings right on the central line, knowing very well that it would prove difficult, if not impossible, to remove these illegal squatters from the affected areas. Can you imagine, of all the open spaces available in and around Cape Town, they choose the railway line to build their illegal homes?

Just outside Khayelitsha, Langa and Philippi are where you find these squatters — it’s ludicrous. The city is required to remove these people, but the law stipulates, rightfully so, that vacant land or alternative living spaces must be made available for them to relocate to — and this the city does not want to acquiesce to.

Why not, you might ask? Because the DA-run administration actually wants a devolution of responsibility when it comes to the passenger rail service. What they want is a New York City-type arrangement saying that what’s required is a city transport authority, meaning that the passenger rail and bus services fall under the jurisdiction of the city and not the national government.

As such, the city is playing politics while our people are suffering, both from a cost perspective because taxis are more expensive than the trains, but also from a safety point of view since the taxis endanger our people every day on our roads.

Furthermore, because of the inactive central line, the costs of destruction from opportunistic thieves and vandals have now amounted to billions of rands. Money that will have to come from taxpayers’ pockets, if repair work ever begins.

Now, you might ask what is the problem with a city transport authority, and the answer is very clearly, nothing. But why not follow the normal legislative processes to try to get that particular outcome? Why engage in politics and exploit a bad situation to the detriment of your citizens to get there? Why is it that the taxi violence situation is by and large the responsibility of the national government, but when it comes to public transport the city wants it to fall under its authority. Why?

I’m made to understand that all Prasa wants is available land to relocate the illegal squatters and that it will take responsibility for moving the people from the affected areas, but alas. And before some of you complain about the rights of the homeless people, I’m not suggesting that we remove them Mugabe-style — but we must act decisively against such illegal practices. We cannot be held to ransom because people are poor or destitute. Crime is crime, and illegal occupation of land is equally against the law.

It’s interesting how it’s the most popular line that these illegal squatters have targeted, from Khayelitsha and Mitchells Plain, which carries the bulk of commuters on any given day — and generates the highest revenue stream, too. Clearly, something is afoot.

With a new CEO at Prasa and the minister of transport taking a direct interest in these matters, perhaps we will eventually see progress on this front. And progress in my book means trains on the central line that run daily and provide a cost-effective and safe service to our people once again.

This will only be possible, Mr Transport Minister, if you muster the political willpower to effectively deal with the taxi bosses and not kowtow to their every whim. DM


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  • Keith Scott says:

    The Cape Town railway system has deteriorated under the National ANC led government. The DA couldn’t do any worse so let’s give it a chance to sort out this dire situation

  • R S says:

    I remember the first time I took the train to Cape Town after I moved here. It wasn’t a first class ride (even first class isn’t), but it was more than functional and did the job. I used the train for 10 years before it got to the point where I was late for work up to 2 hours a day! Thankfully I worked a slightly shorter shift than most so could still make it home by 7PM if I got lucky, so I didn’t get fired. After 2017 I got a job that I could walk to, and got my first second hand car a year or two later.

    For the most part I agree with Oscar’s thoughts. I remember the days riding the train with the buskers playing music or selling sweets and things quite fondly. I even fell asleep on the train a couple of times in the early evening (missed my stop a couple of times and had to double back). But things just got so bad towards the end of my time with Metrorail… Delays for multiple hours every day. Robberies at least once a week. The trains being jam packed as people all squeezed in to get to work on time… It was madness.

    I agree CoCT is playing politics, but this may be a case of short-term pain for long-term gain. Who knows? And regarding the taxis, we’ve always known their true colours. Even when some came to the defence of economic zones in parts of the country, they were protecting themselves by acting. No malls/jobs means no taxi industry. They’re mostly a violent industry and govt must step up to bring them in line.

    • andries . says:

      I too fondly recall train trips into town as day outings with school friends and later my daily commute into word, falling asleep and being prodded awake by fellow-passengers when we reach Cape Town. It’s beyond criminal how Prasa had allowed the network to deteriorate.

      I totally support CoCT’s transport agency vision, multi-mode, single ticket a la London’s Oyster card. Quality public transport has societal benefits too, people from diverse backgrounds and economic realities rub shoulders, even talk to each other, regular faces even become “friends”.

      CoCT has to be tactical. MyCiti started its roll-out where buses and taxis were few. As it’s expanding into competition with taxis, it encounters more resistance, and often violence. Prasa, SAPS, Portnet, etc have been shown incapable or at best disinterested to help “fix” Western Cape infrastructure.

      Evictions are always tricky and sensitive. Limited readily available land and existing backlogs. Does every new eviction order trump prior ones? Do the Prasa evicted get to “jump the queue”? That’s how I understand CoCT’s approach.

      Once CoCT has legal authority for metropolitan rail, they should raise a “transport bond” for a few billion. Just getting the central line running reliably will be a huge win. It might even help expand MyCiti faster given national government’s tightening purse strings.

  • Glyn Morgan says:

    This is a National Government problem. Cape Town City is doing all it can to fix the problem. The ANC, including van heerden, is doing all it can to stymie The City.

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