Who is burning Cape Town’s trains?

#UniteBehind wants President Cyril Ramaphosa to declare the recent arson attacks on trains in Cape Town a national disaster, reports GroundUp.

In a letter, the civil society group called on Ramaphosa and the government to impose "unified action between the relevant authorities, including [the Passenger Rail Agency of SA], local and national government, SAPS, the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation (the Hawks) and the National Prosecuting Authority; for forensic units to find those responsible for acts of sabotage; for daily updates on progress to commuters; and a dedicated monitoring room to track incidents".

These demands were put in a letter to the president on Tuesday.

This comes after a seat was set alight in a train at Cape Town station on Tuesday morning. A suspect has been arrested.


A Metrorail official walks passed a charred train carriage in Cape Town. (Ashraf Hendricks, GroundUp)

A fire at Cape Town station on July 21 destroyed seven rail coaches. Another on July 26 at Retreat destroyed five carriages.

In May, a commuter died in a train fire near Ottery station and another woman suffered severe burn wounds. The fires have caused long delays for commuters using an already strained train service.

In its letter, #UniteBehind highlighted its #FixOurTrains campaign, started in 2017 to remedy "the current crisis" experienced by train commuters daily in the Western Cape.

The group believes that the attacks have been orchestrated to cripple Cape Town's public transport system.

INFOGRAPHIC: 32 train coaches damaged by arson in July alone - Metrorail

"These are not random acts of violence, but a concerted effort against Cape Town's public transport system, and by extension, our economy. Our city and around half a million rail commuters are under attack," it said.

#UniteBehind said that no plan had been put forward during a meeting with Transport Minister Blade Nzimande on July 27.

"We were all invited to an imbizo. #UniteBehind refuses to believe that an imbizo will solve the current crisis. Leadership, a plan, and decisive action is what is needed," it said.


Burnt out trains at the Paarden Eilend depot in Cape Town. (Ashraf Hendricks, GroundUp)

The civil society group has given Ramaphosa until Monday to respond to its demands.

However, a letter sent to Ramaphosa's office in February has yet to be answered.

On Wednesday, Matthew Hirsch of #UniteBehind said most of the recent train fires appeared to be planned and to coincide with internal leadership battles at Metrorail.

"We don't believe that these are just frustrated commuters setting carriages alight. There is a more sinister element behind these attacks," he said.

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Metrorail regional manager Richard Walker said that it was still "too premature to speculate" on the reasons for the attacks. Walker added that the modus operandi for the fires was that "they were deliberately set".

He said that, because train fires were classified as malicious damage to property and not arson, the consequences for perpetrators were not as severe.

"We need to lobby to change legislation, so these incidents can be reported as arson. It's not just a challenge for us, but for SAPS as well, who also have challenges with prioritising policing certain areas," he said.

Asked about #UniteBehind's call to the president, Walker said: "We appreciate all the support, especially from a civic organisation who works in communities. The more aware communities are about this, [the more] they can self-police the system and provide us with intelligence to help catch these perpetrators."

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