Cape Town’s rail public transport is literally going up in flames. For the second Saturday in a row, in the historic heart of Cape Town, billowing clouds of tar-black smoke have marred the otherwise clear blue winter sky. The source: arson attacks on passenger trains at Cape Town Station. This latest fire marks the sixth act of arson on Cape Town’s Metrorail system in the six weeks, and the third event in the past week.
The impact of the fire damage has been tremendous. Dozens of railcars, tens of millions of Rands of damage, and a 30%+ reduction in passengers over the past year, which will create even more issues for the struggling parastatal agency. Metrorail’s failure will also have a huge impact on the City’s long-term plans to address important issues of congestion, climate change, and economic activity. Earlier this year, the City came out with a Municipal Spatial Planning Framework whose long-term vision was premised on a functional rail system. While some questioned why the City would plan around a rail system that has long operated inadequately, I agree with the City that any long-term vision must be built around the rail system. It is an asset too valuable to discard, particularly in light of the imperative to move towards public transport and away from private automobiles.
There are a number of theories regarding who is behind the attacks. One, promoted by the civic organization #UniteBehind, is that elements within Metrorail itself are trying to destabilize the organization in order to enable continued corruption within the organization. Another is that the minibus taxi organizations, many of whom at times have used mafia-like strongarm tactics to maintain their economic power, are seeking a competitive advantage. It is hard for me to not look towards the minibus taxi organizations, which are well-placed to benefit from a hamstrung rail network, the only effective alternative for many people commuting from the township areas to the economic centers of Cape Town.
Arson isn’t Metrorail’s only problem, with vandalism and theft also having a big impact on operations. However, the acts of arson, I would argue, are in a different category. While there may be an economic motivation for them, and a desire to sabotage Metrorail, these acts seem more akin to terrorism. The symbolism of huge black smoke clouds emanating from Cape Town Station, for the City’s political and economic elite to see, seems intended to elicit a sense of fear, a threat, an assertion of power and control.
In addition to horror, I watched these clouds from my balcony this Saturday with a great sense of sadness. The people who are hurt most by this are marginalized, hardworking people who can least afford it. Whatever shortsighted goals this machiavellian act will achieve, it will almost surely also deepen the entrenched economically and racially based transportation segregation in Cape Town, which in turn will make it even harder to move towards an environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable future. One can only hope this may instead serve as the nadir for rail in Cape Town, and galvanize reform and support for this much-needed service.