A gutted Metrorail carriage in Nancefield, Soweto in this file photo. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
A gutted Metrorail carriage in Nancefield, Soweto in this file photo. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

Suburban trains used to run on time. Mostly. Now it’s as if they are routinely sabotaged according to a timetable: "The 7.43 due to arrive on platform 4 is on fire again …" This year in the Western Cape alone 47 coaches have been destroyed by arson. Since 2015, the total is more than 150 coaches — the equivalent of at least 20 trains, worth hundreds of millions of rands. In KwaZulu-Natal, all train services were suspended last week because the Passenger Rail Agency of SA (Prasa) said it feared for the safety of staff and commuters.

This is public arson on a grand scale: sustained, flagrant and widespread. Who is doing it? There is a theory that the ANC is somehow orchestrating the attacks on Cape Flats trains, to undermine the province’s DA government. But that would not stand up in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal, where coaches are also regularly set on fire but where the ANC is the governing party.

These acts can hardly all be on the spur of the moment — though the arson does seem to coincide with trains running late or not running at all. Simply lighting a match would not be sufficient; some flammable liquid like petrol is needed, so there has to be planning and collusion. Yet, if organised crime is to blame, as transport minister Blade Nzimande has suggested, it is hard to see where the dividends are for the criminals.

The source of the violence may be a mystery, but the result is anarchy.

Trains, along with taxis, are critical to mass transit in the cities, for all classes of commuter. Metrorail is supposed to transport about 2-million passengers a day, or 15% of the people using public transport.

It is not hard to find the reasons for the decline in the Metrorail service. The separation of rail passenger and goods traffic in the 1990s — under Prasa and Transnet Freight Rail — was unnecessary and impractical. It compromised safety and blurred accountability. Partly as a result of this split, there is a huge backlog of investment in infrastructure.

Safety and security — for staff, passengers and equipment — has been a festering problem since the abolition of the Railways Police during the apartheid years. Criminal syndicates loot copper cabling with impunity, causing frequent delays and costly repairs. Throw in basic incompetence and endemic corruption, and it is a wonder that trains are running at all.

Why do people who experience poor service delivery resort to violence that further undermines that service? Trains are destroyed, classrooms and clinics are burnt down. Houses are forcibly seized, emergency workers such as firefighters and paramedics are assaulted. But beyond blind anger, there is a logic to it. Poor communities have learnt this is the only way to get the attention of the government.

The police appear helpless. They have no intelligence-gathering capacity to enable analysis and prevention of the train arson. It is the same with the frequent "service delivery" protests all over SA, part genuine frustration and part opportunistic criminality. Public-order policing is either primitive or nonexistent.

When violent strikers intimidate workers, or roads are blocked with burning tyres, or taxi operators shoot one another, the police stand by and watch. In short, the police are unable to ensure that law-abiding citizens can go about their business and live without fear.

This epidemic of train arson is just one dramatic symptom of a national emergency. Without law and order, investment remains a dream and economic growth is stunted — and democracy remains a meaningless concept.