Tens of thousands of commuters on Metrorails busiest routes are being ferried by bus because of damage to cables. The damage has paralysed the service between Nyanga, Khayelitsha and Mitchells Plain. Photo: David Ritchie

When a gang vandalises a railway line, it’s not an act of vandalism only. They are endangering lives, says Murray Williams.

Cape Town - A mother stands patiently, waiting. For that is all she can do, wait. She is cold and frustrated from standing in the winter cold. But those are the least of her worries.

Far more urgent is her anxiety that she may not make it to work in time. And after work, who knows when she will be able to return home?

She could lose her job, or have her pay docked. She may arrive back home too late to make supper. Worse still, she may not be able to afford food for her family in the weeks and months to come if her employment is terminated.

And on her journey home, there’s every chance she may have to walk many kilometres. She knows her very life will be at risk, from gangsters and other violent criminals who prowl the dark streets.

This mother is not just annoyed, she’s terrified. And what caused this state of legitimate anxiety?

Railway vandals.

They struck again this week – ripping out crucial components that our railway network relies upon to function.

This caused delayed trains, cancelled services entirely, and all manner of dire delays for a great many citizens.

Railway vandalism, for some, is little more than petty theft.

Vandalism of railway lines has the net impact of an attack against our most vulnerable citizens.

One could easily argue that key state infrastructure – like railway lines – should enjoy some form of protected legal status, which makes vandalism a higher-scheduled crime.

When a gang vandalises a railway line, it’s not an act of vandalism only. For they are directly endangering lives. And they are severely threatening livelihoods – jobs which put food on children’s plates.

This is one issue the ruling DA, the opposition ANC and their tripartite alliance partners Cosatu agree on explicitly.

We rightly treat rape as an abominable crime against the woman victim, and against our society. So should we treat vandalism of key state infrastructure.

The vandals have left the woman at the railway station, described above, extremely vulnerable. They’ve made her children vulnerable, and the aged and many others who rely upon her care.

That’s the state’s job – whether represented by the national government and its agencies, by the province or the local municipality.

Crime against public transport, in whatever guise, threatens the functioning of our society, the safety of thousands on a given day, and the livelihoods of tens of thousands, and hundreds of thousands of their dependants.

Crimes with such potentially severe impact deserve priority attention, and severe penalty.

And should one even bother suggesting that the army be deployed to guard our essential railway lifelines?

But there’s the flip side too – the citizens’ job.

Cape Town’s citizenry is highly active in places like Mitchells Plain, where neighbourhood watches, street committees and crime reaction units are solidly in place.

Citizens should identify railway lines as crucial communal assets – at very least by reporting railway vandalism to the dedicated law enforcement agencies which have been set up.

Sadly, however, there are also communities across greater Cape Town that routinely break things when angry. They effectively worsen the levels of services in their poor areas. What are the chances that they’ll confront and stop the railway vandals?

The state must get tougher – on both. And citizens need to decide, too: are they part of the solution? Or part of the problem?

* Murray Williams’ weekly column Shooting from the Lip appears in the Cape Argus every Friday.

Cape Argus