Wednesday 30 July 2014 marked one of the biggest acts of sabotage ever committed on South Africa’s public transport infrastructure.
Starting in the early hours of the morning, signal cables along Metrorail’s central line in Cape Town were systematically cut in 25 places, disabling services to Khayelitsha, Philippi, Nyanga and Mitchell’s Plain.
Before repairs could be completed, at least four further signal cables were again destroyed by early Friday morning, before a single train had even passed.
Altogether 11 stations were closed and 15 trains were taken off the tracks as Metrorail scrambled to find buses to ferry stranded passengers.
Sabotage is defined as “deliberately destroying, damaging or obstructing something, especially for political or military advantage”.
In some of the newspaper reports, the cutting of these cables was described as “acts of vandalism”, but many others called it what it really is: sabotage.
Wednesday’s attack on the central line most certainly was a deliberate act of destruction, aimed at crippling the City’s transport infrastructure. This distinguishes it from the routine, but nevertheless devastating crime of “cable theft” which affects commuters every day.
From the brazen, precise and widespread nature of the cable damage, it is clear that whoever is behind this, planned it well, wanted to cause mayhem and stands to benefit from it.
It has all the hallmarks of the “ungovernability” campaign that has been waged against the provincial and municipal government for three years. We anticipate such acts to escalate in the run-up to the 2016 municipal elections.
The saboteurs got what they wanted: massive public disruption and dissatisfaction. Commuters’ tempers frayed, people were stranded at stations, and some only got back home well into the night. Job seekers could not travel and employees are receiving notices to attend disciplinary hearings.
And then you still need to add the big cost: the loss of productivity.
Metrorail’s central line is the busiest route in Cape Town. Tens of thousands of commuters use it every morning and every evening. Hundreds of business in the City depend on employees making it to work on time. Many are small enterprises with very little margin for productivity loss.
An act like this puts each of these businesses in jeopardy and could cost many people their jobs. This is, no doubt, what the saboteurs want. Cape Town has the lowest unemployment rate in South Africa and they clearly want to reverse this trend.
The Western Cape Chamber of Commerce has described the impact of this incident as “catastrophic”. Metrorail said this week that cable damage has cost them R382 million over the past three years.
While cable theft is not unique to Cape Town, deliberate sabotage is a new and extremely dangerous phenomenon in our democracy that poses a danger to our economy and political stability.
It is not unique to Cape Town, if reports are correct that last year’s collision between two trains in Atteridgeville, Pretoria, was caused by strikers who removed cables linking the automatic signal system. The collision was so severe that a train driver had to be air-lifted to hospital in a critical condition and 300 commuters were injured. As far as I could ascertain, no convictions have followed this incident.
The only way of stopping the saboteurs is to ensure that the perpetrators are identified, arrested, charged with sabotage (not merely malicious damage to property), convicted and sentenced accordingly.
This crime, that affects thousands of people, must be taken extremely seriously because it threatens the central pillar of our democracy: the outcome of a democratic election. If people who cannot get the outcome they want at the ballot box revert to destroying public infrastructure, we will descend into anarchy.
Unfortunately, except for high profile “celebrity crimes” (think Krejcir, Pistorius or Dewani) our criminal justice system often fails citizens. People are validly asking the question: Where are South Africa’s intelligence services?
The “ungovernability” campaign in the Western Cape has been ongoing for years, and the authorities are almost always taken by surprise as attacks are launched on every conceivable target, from toilets to traffic lights, commuters and infrastructure.
It is time the intelligence services (both the State Security Agency and Crime Intelligence) identified the perpetrators, so that the police can arrest them, gather the evidence, and ensure they are convicted in court.
Otherwise a few saboteurs will be able to hold a democratically elected government to ransom and cause untold losses for hundreds of thousands of citizens. I have no doubt that this is their purpose: and it is a form of terrorism, plain and simple.
Cable theft (as opposed to sabotage) also has serious consequences countrywide.
It has become so bad that the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (PRASA) is even considering shutting down Cape Town’s central line altogether, along with possibly the Vereeniging line in Gauteng. This will be absolutely devastating for the communities who rely on these train services to get to work and back.
The millions of South Africans who rely so much on trains every day should not have to accept that cable theft, vandalism and sabotage will disrupt their lives and careers so regularly.
And the intelligence services must do their work here too.
But while we wait for that to happen, we can attack this problem from the other end too: by coming down hard on the people who benefit financially through the sale of the copper cable ripped out of these train lines. We must cut off the demand altogether.
Whenever cables are stolen from train lines across South Africa, the goods inevitably make their way into the hands of dealers.
These dealers know full well the copper is stolen, but they operate safe in the knowledge that our criminal justice system is unlikely to catch up with them. They may even think that a small bribe can keep them out of the police’s clutches. Convictions are low, and the local authorities don’t have the power to close down these businesses. They can issue fines, and little else.
Here we need to take our cue from cities in countries like the Netherlands, where mayors or city managers have the authority to identify and shut down undesirable businesses.
A “problem business bylaw” in the City of Cape Town will empower us to summarily shut down dealers trading in stolen copper. Stealing from the state must carry real consequences.
Currently, the trade in copper is only controlled by the flimsy Second-Hand Goods Act. It is enforced by the SAPS alone and requires the purchaser to keep records. This is honoured more in the breach than the execution.
The Metro Police have no powers under this Act, and this is partly why the law is so ineffective. Along with amendments to business bylaws in our metros, it is imperative that both metro police and the SAPS can contribute to enforcement.
Beyond municipal bylaws, the broader solution lies in limiting – or even banning – the trade in copper.
This is a drastic step, and the DA is not in the business of closing down enterprises. We want to make it easier, not more difficult to do business and create jobs.
But cable theft is destroying jobs, and has the potential to destroy thousands more. In this context, government must act. And if the Police cannot stop these brazen criminals, then other measures are needed.
In 2011, France passed a law banning the sale of ferrous and non-ferrous metals to combat, amongst other things, the scourge of rampant copper cable theft. I’d like to see us consider a similar intervention. At the very least, dealers should be licensed to trade in certain categories of goods, with stringent requirements to qualify.
If we effectively shut down the only channels for offloading stolen copper cable, we will go a long way in safeguarding our transport infrastructure and protecting businesses and jobs.
Shutting down illegal copper metal trading, along with arrests and stringent convictions for saboteurs, is the best way to keep the trains running on time in South Africa’s cities. And that is essential for a growing economy that creates opportunities for all citizens.