Black South Africans risk death daily riding trains Attacks by gangs terrorize commuters

April 13, 1992|By Jerelyn Eddings | Jerelyn Eddings,Johannesburg Bureau

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- When the maroon and gray trains to Soweto jerk into action each afternoon, black commuters pray to make it home alive.

"Every day you go to work, you must pray," said a middle-aged woman named Lillian who boarded the train at Park Street Station in central Johannesburg for the nerve-racking ride home.

"In the mornings we see the trouble. We see people dead outside. I don't know who is killing the people," she said.

For Lillian, who works as a cleaner, and hundreds of thousands of other black commuters, the 45-minute ride to the township is a daily gamble with death.

Once a fast and inexpensive route to and from work for township residents, the trains have become rolling death traps where commuters are attacked by gangs who stab, shoot and steal. Sometimes they don't bother to steal.

"When somebody gets inside, you look at his hands to see if there's a weapon. We are always afraid," said Lillian, sitting with her back against the wall of a wide-bodied car as the train rattled toward the township.

Last month, 71 people were murdered in train attacks in Johannesburg and surrounding areas, according to the Human Rights Commission, an independent monitoring group. Since the beginning of the year, 123 people have died on trains or at rail stations, almost as many as the number killed in attacks during all of last year.

Most of the attacks are waged by armed men who board the trains and sweep through cars in a wave of terrorism that sends passengers leaping through windows while the trains are speeding down the tracks.

The train terrorism is among the most frightening forms of violence that have emerged since South Africa entered a period of political transition aimed, in part, at improving the lives of the country's 30 million black citizens.

When the attackers strike, the passengers face the choice of death by machete, spear or pistol or near-certain death leaping to the outside.

"I'm taking a chance even now," said a burly man named Herman who works at a factory and who switched to the night shift to avoid the busiest trains. "We don't trust anybody nowadays. It's very dangerous on the trains."

Police say the attacks are part of the political struggle between the country's two main black organizations, the African National Congress and the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party. But many of the victims are elderly and infirm with no affiliation except their churches, and many of the attacks are described by witnesses as random -- or at least not directly linked to politics.

In the worst incident since the train trouble began in August 1990, 26 people were hacked and stabbed to death in September by Zulu-speaking men who said people in that car were disparaging their tribal leader, King Goodwill Zwelethini.

"They said we were singing against their king," said Anna Maleka, a 43-year-old office worker who was stabbed in the side and shot in her right arm in the attack.

Since 1968, Mrs. Maleka had ridden a rail car known as the "church coach," where commuters met each day to pray and sing hymns on their way home from work. There were no songs about the king, she said.

"Most people would pray with us or sing with us. We were from different churches, but we prayed all together, and we thanked God for being with us for the day."

On that horrific day, attackers boarded the train at a downtown station and worked their way through the church coach, slashing and shooting. They leaped from the train as it pulled up to the next stop.

Mrs. Maleka, who lost a friend that day, doesn't ride the trains anymore. She switched to the bus, which is more expensive and takes twice as long.

Thousands of others line up daily for mini-van "taxis," which weave madly through rush-hour traffic, carrying 15 or more people.

Taxis also are more expensive, and some commuters say they can't afford the extra cost. Those who can deserted the trains months ago.

Authorities say 1.4 million black commuters ride the trains to Soweto and other black townships that serve as bedroom communities for the mines, factories and offices around Johannesburg.

The commuter trains have been in existence since the 1950s, when the government moved millions of blacks to townships outside the urban centers and laid the rails so that they could travel to the cities to work.

"There's always been quite a high level of criminal activity on the trains, but not the sort of indiscriminate activities we've been seeing," said Chris Orr, who conducted research on train violence.

Safoora Sadek of the Human Rights Commission charged that the train attacks are part of a pattern of political violence caused by sinister elements who hope to sow chaos and destabilize the country to thwart moves toward black majority rule.

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