In the most recent attacks, carriages were set alight at Cape Town central station and Retreat station. Picture: Armand Hough/African News Agency (ANA)

Cape Town is under attack. 

Rail commuters are being held hostage by criminals who believe a productive use of their time constitutes the destruction of public infrastructure that benefits millions of people.

Trains are being burnt. Let's call out this action for what it is - terrorism.

The attacks are not just vandalism, as if there could be such a thing as "petty" vandalism involving the complete destruction of infrastructure that benefits the public.

Arson is the deliberate setting alight of property. Terrorism is the "unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims". What these political aims are remains to be revealed, but judging by the response of the public, and in particular the commuters who use Metrorail's services daily, there is definite intimidation against them, the civilians. 

Let's unpack what we know about the attacks on our trains:

There have been at least seven attacks in six weeks. The arsonists appear to only be targeting carriages in the middle of the trains - these are motorised carriages without which the train can't move, crippling it.

This would imply that the "vandals" know exactly what they are doing and thus, these are co-ordinated attacks, not random acts of violence and discontent.

We're talking hundreds of millions of rand in damage; money that needs to come from Prasa, a State-owned enterprise mostly funded by taxpayers - you and I. We are literally paying for the damage.

So, what can be done about it?

Say what you like about the presence (or lack thereof) of security guards, police personnel, etc. but there's no way these terrorists are getting onto the stations and trains without ordinary citizens noticing. If you see something, say something.

There are now just 37 functioning train sets to make 500 000 passenger trips per day. If memory serves, for Metrorail in the Western Cape to operate optimally, they need 80.

The inefficiency of the service, the regular hours-long delays, are a direct result of the damage caused by these attacks.

We need help in combatting this scourge. What can be done? 

Is it the installation of a panic button in each carriage that immediately dispatches a specialised firefighting team? Is it as simple as built-in fire extinguishers/irrigation inside carriages?

Is it an armed security guard in each carriage? This won't be feasible during peak times - the carriages are just too full. And is travelling to work/school/varsity with a man holding an R5 assault rifle something you want to do?

We need solutions. Not promises by government to set up task teams and probes, and overtures by local government that everything would run smoothly if they ran the service. 

And those in charge can also not do this alone.

We need community action.

* Lance Witten is the live editor of the Cape Argus.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.


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