Tens of thousands of Metrorail commuters have been left with no affordable transport due to vandalism, arson and cable theft. Picture: Leon Lestrade. African News Agency/ANA.
Tens of thousands of Metrorail commuters have been left with no affordable transport due to vandalism, arson and cable theft. Picture: Leon Lestrade. African News Agency/ANA.

Unions call for soldiers, police to curb organised cable theft crippling rail system

By Bulelwa Payi Time of article published Sep 12, 2021

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Labour unions have made fresh calls for the deployment of soldiers and police along the rail lines to prevent cable theft amid efforts by the rail agency to ensure the resumption of services.

Both the United National Transport Union (UNTU) and the South African Transport and Allied Workers' Union (Satawu) say cable theft, which has paralysed Metrorail operations, has reached a crisis that warranted serious intervention by the law.

The unions feared that as long as the unabated cable theft, orchestrated by organised criminal syndicates, grand plans to improve the Metrorail operations would “come to zero”.

The Passenger Rail Authority of South Africa (PRASA) believed it would take another 14 months to get the Metrorail Central Line up to standard.

Tens of thousands of Metrorail commuters have been left with no affordable transport due to vandalism, arson and cable theft. Picture: Leon Lestrade. African News Agency/ANA.

The rail agency also planned to introduce limited services on the Cape Town to Nyanga and Bellville lines from December.

Spokesperson for UNTU Sonja Carstens said the plans would not materialise if drastic security measures were not taken.

Carstens said the cable theft crisis had now attracted the attention of the National Economic Development And Labour Council (NEDLAC), which had formed a cable theft task team to find solutions.

"As labour, we have a perception that those who are supposed to be safeguarding the infrastructure - which is vital to the economy - seem to have an indifferent attitude, yet we know that the stolen copper cables are being exported to some countries," alleged Carstens.

According to Prasa, investigations found that "syndicates do exist, which include collusion and organised crime".

Cable theft is estimated to cost the economy as much as R7 billion a year, and has also affected companies such as Eskom, Telkom and Transnet.

"On the ground level we are feeling the impact, and it is to the detriment of the economy. What puzzles us is that the government would not let anyone get near an aeroplane and torch it, yet that's what is happening to trains. We don't see the visibility of police," said Carstens.

Satawu secretary-general Jack Mazibuko agreed, and said the union also believed that "a syndicate was involved", and feared inaction to curb this would lead to job losses.

"We're worried that this is the work of a dangerous syndicate. We've made a call for the deployment of police and soldiers immediately. We cannot wait any longer," Mazibuko said.

He said the economy was in crisis and although there had been some arrests and prosecution of a few suspects, the theft warranted a tough approach.

Prasa group chief executive Zolani Matthews briefed the Select Committee on Transport, Public Service and Public Works & Infrastructure this week about plans to bring the Central Line back into operation in 2022.

He told the committee the rail agency was investing in building and carrying out maintenance work on the rail system to make it "vandal-proof" and meet world-class standards.

The Metrorail service has been paralysed for almost two years due to the breakdown of infrastructure, cable theft and arson attacks on trains.

"Criminals know what to target - it's organised with intent to destroy the network and impede operations," said Matthews.

Matthews also told the committee that he was scheduled to meet the National Commissioner of Police, Khehla Sitole, to explore whether there was a possibility of bringing back the rail police unit.

Prasa said it had a Memorandum of Understanding with SAPS that was signed in 2019, but no further details were provided on what it entailed.

The meeting with Sitole had been rescheduled as he had “an urgent matter to attend to", Prasa spokesperson Bane Ndlovu said.

Sitole's spokesperson, Brigadier Vishnu Naidoo, said the police were not aware of syndicates, and that any information to that effect should be shared with the police.

He said Sitole had delegated Deputy Commissioner for Policing Lieutenant-General Fannie Masemola to meet with Matthews to find out "what their further needs were", as the police were also providing interventions.

"There have been successes achieved - we've made some arrests and those who were brought to court were given lengthy sentences," said Naidoo.

However, Prasa board chairperson Leonard Ramatlakane told the committee on Thursday that the police had allegedly been interdicted from "frequenting" scrapyards to inspect them for stolen cables.

"There seems to be a fight-back from the scrapyards. We've lost millions of rands," said Ramatlakane.

He also said Prasa introduced the People's Responsibility To Protect Programme, which roped in volunteers from communities to safeguard the infrastructure after the cancellation of security tenders had also been put on hold due to compliance issues.

Carstens said: "The problem is escalating. Unless drastic measures are taken, we are slowly killing the economy".

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