Posted on September 29, 2020

Stripped Bare: Looting Till There Is Nothing Left of Gauteng’s Rail Network

Bheki C. Simelane, Daily Maverick, September 29, 2020

At about 2.25pm on 28 July, I witnessed the shameless thieving of rail infrastructure during lockdown. Between the Midway and Lenasia stations, five men, dug in up to the waist, were “eating” cables. (Eating is a word used to describe the theft of cables for resale.)

I walked along the rail towards the group of men as they dug with picks. They were not bothered by passersby watching them. They were not bothered that motorists driving in and out of Lenasia were also probably spotting them. They even joked how everything had been “eaten”.

“If a money van is prised open and everyone scrambles for cash, you want to tell me that you will stand by and watch?” commented one.

They boasted about having their fair share of the “eating” of the infrastructure, yet seemed concerned that there was nothing left to steal.

This brazen example of the pillaging and destruction of Gauteng’s rail network is indicative of the challenges that lie ahead as commuters return to the stations to work under Level 1 of lockdown. Infrastructure vandalism and theft range from overhead electrical lines, electrical substations as well as vandalism of station and depot buildings.

Prasa confirmed in September that only three out of 17 rail lines were operational in Gauteng.

Over the past few months, Daily Maverick tracked about 20 train stations and routes including, Kliptown, Jeppe, Germiston, Chiawelo, Midway, Knights, Jeppe, Residensia, Randfontein, Naledi and Doornfontein.

The mining of the rail infrastructure happens day and night, and in full view of the public – including those who are in desperate need of a rail service.

Overhead cables are missing on several train routes, including the Johannesburg-Vereeniging line, Johannesburg-Naledi rail route and Johannesburg-Pretoria rail route, Johannesburg-Pretoria, Johannesburg-Westonaria and Johannesburg-Randfontein rail lines. These have been cut “very close to the bone” as perpetrators ensured that they get away with every possible inch of cable. Small pieces are left hanging overhead.

Underground cables were not spared, with the vast digging up and hacking at train stations. Coaches have also been targeted by criminals, and have been stuck at some stations such as Midway for some time.

Distribution boxes at many stations have been torn and disembowelled of their tiny copper cables. In some instances, the boxes are torched.

The mining of the country’s rail infrastructure has been going on for years.  But during lockdown, with no security personnel around, perpetrators escalated their efforts. The extent of the looting of the country’s rail network has been highlighted in various media outlets over recent months.

There have been a total of 1,833 incidents of vandalisation at train stations in Gauteng over the past three years at a replacement cost in excess of R2-billion, it was revealed in a parliamentary response to a DA question in July 2020.

A colleague likened it to illegal mining, where gangs only move on once they are convinced there is nothing left to mine.

Kliptown station

Walking into the Kliptown station was like stumbling on the scene of a recently erupted volcano. The damage from dug-up cables is extensive. Lights, distribution boxes, taps, guard rails, steel benches, doors, windows frames are all missing. The entire roofing structure has been removed in some buildings.

Kliptown station had already started degenerating before the large-scale damage over recent months during lockdown.

For years, an entire Kliptown informal settlement community has been connected to the rail power supply. In September 2017, Daily Maverick spoke to “Sparks”, a guy who makes a living by connecting community members from the rail power supply and fixing their power. Sparks, who is a hero in the community, had no formal training. During that September, Prasa, the SA Police Service and department of community safety conducted a safety operation in the area, but it failed to identify the root of the problem. No one was held accountable.

The Kliptown station is also notorious for crime, regardless of whether guards are in the vicinity or not. The general community and thieves have unlimited access to the Kliptown station because the palisade fencing has gone.

Germiston station

Walking into the Germiston station is like walking into the scene of a bomb blast. There is extensive damage to the walls, caused when perpetrators removed windows, lights, seats, water taps, guard rails and the entire roof of the buildings – including one of the structures that shelter passengers from heat and rain – is missing.

There have also been attempts to remove the metal frames that held the roofing together. The gates at Germiston station have been stolen, and what remains of them is badly damaged.

The damage to the gates makes it easy for criminals to simply drive inside. Theft and vandalism at Germiston station occur daily and often in full view.

Old Benrose station

This station is possibly one of the most damaged stations – hundreds of metres of rails were stolen from multiple railway tracks. The cuts on some of the remaining rails suggest the use of specialised equipment. The buildings stand bare with doors, window frames and taps all removed. All that remains is a bare shell. There are no overhead electrical lines as they have all been stolen. A few youngsters were seen trying to scavenge whatever they could from the station, which has been stripped bare.

Jeppe station

The building has been stripped and vandalised and the tiles on the floor damaged. Light fittings, window frames, door frames and all other “essentials” that criminals could lay their hands on are missing. A man was seen with a hacksaw making his way to the tracks. He became aggressive when he saw a Daily Maverick photographer and walked off when asked what he intended to do with the hacksaw.

Security guards standing in a different section of the station blamed the lockdown for the destruction. 

George Goch station

At George Goch station, digging of cables left a few of the benches barely standing. Buildings and waiting rooms have been hollowed out, with water taps, windows, door frames, window frames, guard rails, lights and just about every piece of metal removed.

On any given day, people can be found scratching for whatever little has been left behind at George Goch station. Extensive damage was also caused to the walls of some buildings at the station.

Perpetrators are not all individual pilferers. Some operate within organised networks. This is how they have managed to steal even the rails, missing along a stretch of the station.

Chiawelo station

Everything looks fairly normal upon entering Chiawelo station until you get to the platforms. Cables have been dug up. The waiting rooms have been torched, and this occurred before lockdown. It seemed thieves were burning the stolen cables inside the waiting rooms, causing a lot of damage.

The palisade fence was also destroyed way before lockdown. Some people used the openings in the fence to bypass the ticket office and ride “mangobe” (avoiding buying a ticket).

The Chiawelo station was vandalised soon after some stations, including Orlando station, were renovated some years ago. Like the Kliptown station, the Chiawelo station is a breeding ground for crime.

A countrywide phenomenon

Gauteng is not alone in being a hotbed for theft of rail infrastructure.

Social Justice movement, #Unite Behind, said it had been monitoring the plundering of Prasa infrastructure across the country.

“We have noted the widespread plunder of rail infrastructure across the country. Poor security and lockdown have made it easy for criminals to further destroy Prasa property,” said #UniteBehind’s Zukiswa Vuka.

“What we know and have observed, specifically on the Central and Northern lines in Cape Town, is that cables and signalling equipment have been stolen/damaged.”

South African Transport and Allied Workers Union (Satawu) passenger rail coordinator Lubabalo Tinzi said:

“Vandalism of Prasa property and cable theft is a nationwide phenomenon and as a result, Satawu has been calling for a complete overhaul of the current Prasa railway system in the context of modernisation programmes.”

To repair the damage nationally will cost R4-billion, according to a 16 September briefing by Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula.

At the briefing, he announced another ministerial safety plan for Prasa in Bryanston, saying that more than 3,000 guards had been insourced to assist.

The safety plan also includes SAPS, the State Security Agency (SSA) and the Department of Justice.

Mbalula blamed syndicates for the looting of the rail infrastructure and said some people hired children to strip rail cables. He also said they colluded with Prasa officials.

“It will be incorrect to think that the syndicates act on their own; there are enablers who grant them the honeymoon on Prasa property,” said Mbalula.

As an example, he said that two people, a present and a former employee, had been caught with Prasa assets worth more than R2-million.

He said the theft and vandalism undermined efforts to modernise the sector; the new security officials began work in August and have already had successes, including the arrest of six men who were caught with copper cables and signalling equipment worth R5.5-million.

There have been various attempts to put the rail network back on track. A year ago, Mbalula launched a war room amid much fanfare. He said the war room would address safety and security.

Tinzi said Satawu had always believed the war room had not met with success because critical stakeholders had been left out when it was established.

“We were not given an opportunity to make an input,” he said. “Our analysis of the move informed us that this was an attempt to close the gap that had been created by the nonexistence of performance management systems for executive management.”

Prasa has lacked leadership and been on the ropes for some time. In December 2019, Mbalula appointed Bongisizwe Mpondo as administrator in an effort to revive it.

This appointment was controversial and short-lived. In September 2020, The National Treasury appointed Badisa Matshego as the new accounting authority of Prasa, after a Western Cape High Court order setting aside Mpondo’s appointment. #UniteBehind had challenged the appointment, saying legal process had not been followed.

Prasa has been without a permanent board since 2017 — there have been five interim boards at the agency. Mbalula sent out advertisements for nominations in June 2020.

The passenger rail agency’s Corporate Plan 2020/22 delivers a devastating indictment of Prasa operations.

On human capital management problems, the corporate plan reads:

“Prasa’s Human Capital Management function is not structured to support the business because of the complex organizational structure in between Corporate, Divisions, Subsidiaries, and Regions. Consequently, HCM is not able to address the duplication of support functions in the regions and between the divisions and subsidiaries.”

In terms of skills and capacity building, the Corporate Plan 2020/22 says: “The organisation has not prepared itself for the changes and developments in the transport sector and requires investment in new skills and capacity development geared for the fast-changing modern public entity.

A rare success story

Amid failure upon failure, there was one notable success story. On 10 September, Mpumalanga police said the Middleburg regional Court sentenced 36-year-old Sizwe Khaba and 42-year-old Rhison Makhamba to eight years in jail for infrastructure damage and contravention of the Immigration Act. The pair were sentenced for stealing rails in 2018.

Prasa responds: ‘We are overstretched’

Metrorail Gauteng spokesperson Lillian Mofokeng responded to queries from Daily Maverick, agreeing that it was “unfortunate” that the looting of the rail network would directly affect people who depended on rail for travel.

“The Metrorail market comes from mainly disadvantaged communities and with the high level of unemployment the lack of service will unfortunately strain further the same communities,” said Mofokeng.

“Gauteng Metrorail is currently experiencing an alarming increase in the number of reported cases of infrastructure vandalism and theft ranging from overhead electrical lines, electrical substations as well as vandalism of station and depot buildings. The rise in unprecedented levels of vandalism and theft of critical infrastructure components, along with the evident growth in the illicit trading of copper and steel on the black market, means Prasa must refocus their efforts towards providing more security manpower using the same amount of money meant for passenger rail improvements without any additional revenue or funding.”

“The vast open nature of the Gauteng Metrorail network means there are 218 stations and halts (10 super core, 29 core, 49 intermediate, 48 small and 82 halts) and 1,380km of rail track, 157km of rail network, making it difficult for Prasa to effectively secure both the stations and the rail network.

“Prasa is effectively being put in a difficult position of ensuring that it covers the entire rail network and stations with security personnel.

“Prasa finds itself overstretched between planning for service resumption and also making good on our commitments to upgrade the system.  It is important that communities become vigilant and help report acts of vandalism on the system to help protect passenger rail.

“Prasa’s Business Intelligence, with the help of other law enforcement agencies and the South African Police Services (SAPS), continue to work around the clock to curb this escalating criminal activity through random and continuous surveillance and monitoring of the scrap dealerships alongside Metrorail operational areas. These efforts are bearing positive results as a number of scrap metal dealership premises have been found in possession of stolen Prasa material.

“Prasa, however, continues to make gains in the fight against vandalism with a recent major bust of an illicit ring trading in Prasa cables and seized over R20-million worth of stolen cables in recent months at a house in Ratanda, Heidelberg and Jooste Scrap Metal at Makau, Garankuwa respectively, to name a few. We have successfully managed to make arrests with the help of tip-offs from community members.”

“Metrorail commenced with a limited train service in Tshwane between Pirnaarspoort and Pretoria which has been running successfully from the 1st of July 2020 with the use of diesel locomotives due to the extent of theft and vandalism of infrastructure. We have successfully extended resumption of limited train services in the following corridors: Leralla-Johannesburg and Naledi-Johannesburg (dates to be announced).”