Groped, doped on the train

2017-06-25 06:02
Melita Mahlangu. Picture: Leon Sadiki

Melita Mahlangu. Picture: Leon Sadiki

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Manners are castigated and female travellers victimised as dagga smoking, gambling, drinking, groping and ejaculating go on, unchecked, in overfull carriages.

Nineteen-year-old Dikeledi Tema wished an elderly gentleman had not tried to offer her his seat in the packed train this week, after his gesture triggered a salvo of unsolicited rebukes from some disapproving male occupants in the train.

The gentleman had first asked if anybody would be kind enough to offer a seat to “the lady carrying a child” as Tema, who was carrying her two-year-old son, was standing.

The verbal reprimand from younger male train commuters reflects the anomaly that persists in South Africa, even as the assaults, rapes and murders of women continue to plague the country.

City Press interviewed several commuters and train drivers on various Gauteng train routes – in Tembisa, Springs, Katlehong and Germiston. Most female commuters complained of gropers, particularly on early morning and afternoon rush hour commutes, when trains were full.

They claimed that men fondled their private parts and that, since trains were packed to beyond capacity, identifying the culprits was difficult.

Tema was accompanied by her friend, Lebohang Seema (18). They were on their way to Elsburg Station, travelling in a train from Katlehong to Germiston. She told City Press that women experienced various forms of abuse from some of the male commuters on a daily basis.

“A group of young men laughed and told me that no one would give up a seat for a child who was carrying another child. They said they did not send me to go to get pregnant instead of being in school,” said Tema.

“Some were even smoking marijuana inside the carriage , unconcerned that my child was inhaling that toxic smoke.”

Tema’s friend Seema told City Press that her worst experience was with ticket officials who did not penalise young people found travelling without a ticket. Instead, they took whatever the guilty party owned and would “tell [them] that it serves as a penalty for travelling illegally”.

Seema said that, like many of the commuters, she came from a poor family and used the train to get to town in search of work. She admitted to also having travelled without a valid train ticket. She said the ticket officials never victimised men or took their belongings as men fight back.

“They take advantage of us because we are women. Last week, they confiscated my 2-litre Cola bottle, saying I could afford to buy refreshments but not a train ticket.”

"Crammed and surrounded by men"

Melita Mahlangu (28) travels daily from Tembisa to Johannesburg and has been using trains since 2009. Her nightmare is gropers, who target women in packed trains.

“You are crammed and surrounded by men,” she said.

“While not all men are barbaric, there are those who fiddle with your private parts, knowing that they cannot be spotted or confronted because of the overwhelmingly crammed carriage,” she complained.

She said that, in June last year, she was shocked to find that her dress was wet on reaching her destination.

“Upon close examination, the substance looked much like semen,” she said.

“I could not believe that someone had ejaculated on my dress in public in a train.”

City Press also witnessed men using train carriages as if they were shebeens – drinking alcohol and openly smoking marijuana.

According to commuters, these actions often take place in evening trains on most routes to townships. Helpless commuters remain silent as their rights are violated because there are no security or law enforcement agents around.

Female commuters travelling from Johannesburg after work to various destinations in Ekurhuleni Metropolitan Municipality and Pretoria, told City Press how they had been robbed in public or had watched helplessly as fellow travellers were robbed.

Tshidi Lesolle (not her real name) said perpetrators had a way of “breaching train doors” and, as the train left the platform, grabbed handbags or cellphones and jumped out before it left the station.

“Women are seemingly the main targets because there are no security officers to protect commuters,” she said.

Two female train drivers, who asked not to be named as they are not allowed to talk to the media, told City Press of having been harassed and at times assaulted or intimidated by unruly male commuters, especially when trains were stationary.

“I sometimes fear for my life, especially when a train stops in dark and bushy areas at night. Anything can happen to us. Male and female drivers are not safe,” she said.

Lillian Mofokeng, spokesperson for the Passenger Rail Agency of SA, said: “Unfortunately, this unbecoming commuter behaviour happens mainly when trains are too full and/or during off-peak periods.

“We strive to correct [this] during our commuter engagement and safety awareness campaigns ... as a way of educating commuters to respect each others’ rights while using our system. This includes commuters running church services, smoking, drinking and gambling in the trains,” she said.

Special operations

Mofokeng said Metrorail, which operates 23 000 trains a month in Gauteng, had conducted special operations to thwart unruly behaviour and crime. For instance, it had brought in law enforcement agencies to patrol trains in hot spots, where arrests were made. However, she admitted that such operations needed to be intensified.

Mofokeng said that, to this end, efforts were being made to come up with an integrated security strategy “to provide full-time security throughout the entire operational network and inside every train, including installing closed-circuit TV cameras and rolling out new trains”.

“Metrorail is in the process of closing off its network by means of a fencing project, which started in Pienaarspoort and Leralla stations, to improve safety,” she said.

“As and when high-risk areas are identified, security resources are deployed to manage the identified high risks.”

Asked about the safety of train drivers, she said the drivers were continually encouraged at departmental meetings to report safety challenges to the organisation’s protection services. Response teams along dangerous corridors would then be dispatched immediately.

Commuters should report incidents at their nearest train or police stations, or they can phone Metrorail Security and Protection Services at these numbers: for Gauteng South, call 011 774 8566/7/8; and for Gauteng North, call 012 315 2777 or 012 315 2566

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