Officials in Cape Town and the Western Cape have questioned the police’s ability to apprehend an alleged syndicate behind the burning of trains in the city, following another fire in the early hours of Thursday morning.
“Surely if we have an effective law enforcement agency and of course, intelligence, we would have caught these people long ago?” Transport and Public Works MEC Bonginkosi Madikizela told journalists at Cape Town train station on Thursday.
“And we would have cut the umbilical cord of these people so that we can make sure our passengers are not affected by this every time this happens.”
He said the fire was a “massive blow” to commuters and would impact on other services.
Cape Town mayor Dan Plato added that more than 40 train sets, with at least 140 carriages, had been burnt over the past three years “yet not a single person had been prosecuted”.
He said, “the people in charge show no plan of action as nobody is held accountable for this economic sabotage”.
He would be writing to President Cyril Ramaphosa on Thursday to ask that the Hawks be tasked with setting up a special unit to investigate the burning of trains in Cape Town.
ANC Western Cape interim provincial committee coordinator Ronalda Nalumango also referred to the fire as economic sabotage.
“Clearly the timing of this fire… was an attack on the poorest part of our communities who depend on rail to commute. We call on the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) to step up security, not only at Cape Town station but also at other vulnerable stations in the Western Cape,” Nalumango said.
Two trains caught alight in the early hours of the morning, one at Platform 10 and the other at Platform 16.
Police officers walk towards a burnt train at Cape Town station (Dominique Jeftha, News24)
Metrorail said the fire soon spread to adjacent platforms, destroying two full trains and 18 carriages. No injuries were reported.
Most platforms were seen covered in debris and the acrid smell of smoke still lingered.
Metrorail said early indications were that an accelerant was used.
Madikizela did not want to speculate on the motive while still awaiting facts but questioned the timing and location of the fires.
“That statement [about people making the Western Cape ungovernable] was made before and I find it ironic, that it seems to be happening in the Western Cape only. It is not something that is happening in other areas,” he said.
People were also aware that new trains were expected to come on board soon.
“What we are seeing here is what we are seeing across the province where there is no intelligence whatsoever, and also the work the police is doing leaves much to be desired… Again, if you do have CCTV cameras and you are able to identify the perpetrators, why haven’t we got that? I do not believe that our intelligence cannot know, do not know the people who are behind this.”
Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula was expected to inspect the burnt trains during a visit to the station on Thursday afternoon.
Madikizela expressed his frustration because regional officials from Prasa ostensibly waited for Mbalula to arrive at the station before giving a brief.
“I cannot put my problem on hold and wait until whatever time the minister will be coming here to come and see for myself,” he said, seemingly exasperated.
He said even though the national government was responsible for rail services, local people were affected and wanted answers from the province, not understanding jurisdictional issues.
The province would be very keen to take control of the rail system, but Madikizela said he would work with his provincial powers and wait for the national government to “come to the party”.
“I don’t want to politicise this. Elections have come and gone. What we need now is to work together and get to the bottom of this. I want to take politics out of this,” he said.
“I must be able to respond to commuters honestly. We, as government, need to come together and fix this thing.”
Some train services were restored by 07:00 but a large part of the main concourse remained closed until teams had completed mop-up operations.
“This attack, coupled with the suspension of MyCiTi bus services to Khayelitsha, as well as the (existing) three-week-long suspension of services on the central line that services Mitchells Plain and Khayelitsha is felt the hardest in parts of our society that are being savaged by poverty, unemployment and inequality,” Nalumango added.
“These attacks against our nation cannot be allowed to continue. We urge law enforcement agencies to make this assault, as well as other attacks on our rail services, a priority investigation. We look forward to the arrest, prosecutions and jailing of suspects.”