Our frenzy of self-harm

William Saunderson-Meyer says SA is behaving like a teenage pyromaniac


In years, the post-1994 incarnation of a democratic South Africa is now well into its 20s. Yet it still behaves like an emotionally disturbed teenager. 

It is self-absorbed, selfish and truculent, nor nowhere near as marvellous as it thinks it is. And it is often self-harming, harbouring an unhealthy fascination with matches.

Maybe the Winnie Madikizela-Mandela refrain of “we will liberate ourselves with our matchboxes” tripped some key neurological switch at an impressionable young age. We are simply unable to control our pyromania.

We murder people with burning tyre necklaces. We burn down our schools, torch our clinics and now, the latest fad, we set our trains ablaze. 

In the past three years, according to figures released in Parliament this week, arson attacks have cost the Passenger Rail Agency (Prasa) R636m, with another R150m in damage to the Cape Town station. Most of the losses, some R451m, are in the Western Cape, where seven out of every 10 train burnings occur.

Passenger numbers have halved, dropping from 543m commutes in 2013/14 to 269m in 2017/18. That’s hardly surprising. Who wants to hurtle to oblivion in a burning carriage, as some already have?

Prasa chair Khanyisile Kweyama described the arson attacks to the parliamentary committee as a “national security threat”. Western Cape community safety MEC Dan Plato called it “economic sabotage”, as did Cape Town mayor Patricia Le Lille.

Proving that she is not immune to the dreaded Twitter disease — letting fingers fly before engaging brain — which afflicts the likes of Helen Zille and Donald Trump, De Lille tweeted: “More trains unnecessarily going up in flames…”

“Unnecessarily” is a bizarre choice of words. The only time that trains “necessarily” go up in flames is during a war, when the enemy railways are bombed or sabotaged. 

But perhaps this is indeed a war: SA at war with itself, out of control and self-harming like crazy. And like the disengaged parents of errant teenagers, the people who are supposed to be in charge and should be acting decisively, are instead deflecting blame and refusing to take responsibility for their years of inaction.

Kweyama wants the State Security Agency to assist with “intelligence gathering, investigation and identifying the threat”. Plato, too, wants assistance: “We need answers from military intelligence, from police intelligence. I think the police owe us answers.”

Faint hope. They seem not to have noticed that the state security apparatus has for the past two decades been far too busy trying to keep tabs on the shenanigans between warring factions within the ruling party, to have the time or resources to keep tabs on threats to the nation.

In any case, the police have already identified some obvious problems. Prasa’s CCTV cameras have been offline since 2015 and there are no cameras on platforms. Metrorail security guards — about half whom operate without uniforms — are not consistently paid, nor briefed and deployed jointly with SAPS.

Perhaps the “assistance” these hapless politicians most need is some common sense and a willingness to act. It really shouldn’t have been that difficult for Prasa, the city, the province and other involved parties, to work out ways over the past four years to protect a large steel box on wheels, a steel box that can nightly be marshalled in yards that are enclosed by barbed wire security fences and can be patrolled.

A steel box, nogal, the destruction of which is relatively difficult. It demands flammable materials, time, determination, access and escape routes. 

During the entire armed struggle, the best that the two liberation armies could manage against the railways — the proverbial steel sinews of the apartheid economy — was one suitcase bombing of civilians at Johannesburg station and a handful of blown up rail lines. In contrast, in the past financial year alone, 1496 rail coaches have been destroyed. 

In the absence of intelligent intelligence services, speculation naturally abounds as to why this arson is happening. The explanations range from angry commuters and the taxi sector, to political conspiracy to discredit the Democratic Alliance in Cape Town and the Western Cape. Civil society coalition #UniteBehind says it is not “far-fetched” to suspect that the attacks could be part of internal Prasa power struggles.

#UniteBehind has written to President Cyril Ramaphosa demanding national intervention and has met with Transport Minister Blade Nzimande. Nizimande freely admits to the scale of the problem: “We cannot be able (sic) to catch the people who are doing this and even the few people that have been charged have gotten off scot-free”.

His solution is typically that of the always placating parent-in-denial. He has proposed an imbizo, to talk over things.

Such timidity and ineptness explains why, even as the parliamentary committee was on Tuesday listening aghast to Prasa's litany of woes, another two trains were set on fire in Cape Town station. No arrests.

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