Cape Town - A father’s promise has stretched into 12 years of bureaucratic hell as he battles to ensure the safety of people using Metrorail trains - on which his son was stabbed to death 12 years ago.
Leslie van Minnen is chairman of the Rail Commuters Action Group. He has dedicated every year of life without his son, Juan, to the safety of train travellers.
It’s been 12 years of documents piling up in his study; of 5am trips to photograph overcrowded trains; meetings with rail executives in five-star hotels; and anniversaries of his son’s death passing without the justice Van Minnen has been fighting for.
“Every single aspect of our life was taken up with this. After 12 years it has become horrendous. We’re still arguing about the same things. We are on the verge of giving up.”
But Van Minnen made a promise at his son’s deathbed, and it gives him the strength to keep going.
“I committed to my son when he was lying in hospital in a coma. I promised we would do something.”
It was a Friday evening in June 2001, and Juan had just written his last electrical engineering exam at Cape Technikon. He called his mother to let her know he was getting on a train at Cape Town station with a friend, and would be home in Fish Hoek at 6.45pm. His dad offered to pick him up by car, but he refused.
As the train left Kenilworth station, Juan and his friend were attacked in their Metro Plus compartment. The friend was held up with a gun. As Juan went to help him, two men attacked him from behind, sinking knives into his back and neck.
At Wynberg station, the attackers slipped into the darkness with stolen valuables. Juan was carried bleeding on to the station deck, where he waited for an ambulance.
Back at Fish Hoek station, Leslie waited for his son to arrive. An hour after he was due, the police called.
The Van Minnens raced over the mountain to Groote Schuur Hospital, arriving only minutes after their son was rushed through the hallways to surgery with doctors attending to him on every side.
The next day, Juan was unconscious on life support. Doctors said his injuries had caused too much brain damage.
“There’s no way he could know that we were there,” Van Minnen said. “But he opened his eyes, looked at us, then looked away. That’s when I said I promise you, no more.”
The Van Minnens made the choice to switch off his life support, and walked away from Juan for the last time.
A week later, the Fish Hoek community came together in the civic centre, and the Rail Commuters Action Group was born.
Van Minnen set up office in his home and was soon receiving 50 calls a day from people whose loved ones had been killed, robbed or injured on the trains.
“One grandfather called to say his granddaughter had been raped on the train. He said, ‘I’m a poor man, but I have R10. Please take it and fight for us.’”
The pain of losing Juan was compounded by the pleas of families who reached out to Leslie for help.
“It became everything we did, discussed, thought. There were many times when we wanted to give up. We were absolutely shattered, but we found some way of carrying on.”
First, he took Metrorail to court, where a battle ensued between Metrorail and the police over whose duty it was to protect passengers. The Cape Town High Court ruled that it was up to Metrorail to keep its commuters safe. Metrorail appealed against the decision, and in the Supreme Court of Appeal in Bloemfontein, the judge ruled in Metrorail’s favour. But Van Minnen wasn’t finished yet.
He took 192 000 pages of documents to the Constitutional Court, where it was decided that Metrorail was responsible for safety on trains.
It is now 10 years later, and Metrorail Western Cape recently announced a R233 million emergency budget for upgrades to rail infrastructure critical for safety.
Still, Van Minnen has lodged a case with the public protector because he believes not enough has been done.
He made this vow to Metrorail: “You’ve destroyed half my life already. With the other half, I’m going to fight you.”