The South African Federation of Trade Unions is appalled and angry at the frequency and brutality of attacks on workers and passengers on Prasa’s Metrorail trains.
In the latest horrifying incident, between Pretoria and Piennarspoort, a female train driver was mobbed, hit on the head with a brick, stripped of her clothing and was being dragged to nearby bushes when they were intercepted by Prasa response teams. An additional ten Prasa employees were also attacked during this incident.
Metrorail spokesperson, Thabile Kunene, says that “In the past year we’ve had about seven incidents where drivers were forced to take a detour… For the safety of the drivers we had to agree to the commuters’ demands and diverted the trains”.
Another spokesperson, Lillian Mofokeng, said that they have this week suspended operations in Mamelodi, “due to train hijackings, staff assaults and attacks against commuter trains in the area”. There have been more than 10 attacks in a space of less than a week. Drivers are scared to operate in the area due to ongoing attacks”.
The problem is nationwide. In March last year, angry commuters in KZN hijacked a passenger train heading to Stanger, forcing the driver to head to KwaMashu instead. They then forced the driver to stop halfway before they left the train at North Coast and set several coaches alight.
In the Western Cape, the Central Line from Cape Town to Khayelitsha has been so dangerous, that drivers are refusing to work on it. In January this year, a 52-year-old driver’s eyes were severely injured when his front window was shattered by a brick near Stellenbosch. With blood running down his face, he drove the train filled with commuters to safety at the nearest railway police station.
“Trains are hijacked or robbed every week and Prasa is sitting on a ticking time bomb” says United National Transport Union (Untu) spokesperson Sonja Carstens: “Our members don’t carry their phones with them anymore‚ because they are constantly being robbed of their valuables. Phones‚ purses‚ you name it.”
Security staff tasked with protecting the drivers are also victims of these attacks. Three months ago, protection official Mkhuli Nelani was shot in the chest while patrolling the railway line between Bonteheuwel and Netreg stations.
Prasa says it is dismayed at the catastrophic levels of crime against its employees and assets. “The vandalism and criminality is widespread and demands a higher intervention by all interested parties including the community,” said CEO Cromet Molepo.
“We are very worried about the psychological impact such attacks have on our employees as a whole. Last year a member of the security team was killed by a mob whilst on duty during service delivery protests that spilled onto our service in Gauteng. Meanwhile in Cape Town and Durban our members are robbed at gun point and some even stabbed whilst doing their job.”
This sickening violence is a symptom of a fractured and dysfunctional society. Commuter trains are degenerating into dangerous death traps. Taxis are just as dangerous as we see in the deaths on our roads, which frequently involve taxis full of learners and workers.
Schools are experiencing rising levels of violence between learners and teachers and public hospitals provide appalling levels of service and some are breeding grounds for the spread of diseases.
In all these public services there is a class divide. Very little such violence occurs on the Gautrains, where security is far tighter than on Metrorail lines. Private schools and hospitals provide far better and safer service to the wealthy minority.
Inequality is not only evident in incomes and ownership of wealth but in the quality of life, as graphically illustrated by the daily nightmare of Metrorail commuters, who risk their lives every time they struggle to get to and from their work.
The recent budget, instead of raising VAT to 15%, thus cutting workers’ living standards even further, should have taxed the rich and used the extra income to drastically improve security and service in Metrorail and all other essential services for the working class and the poor.