Lerato Sithole* is proud of the job she does: getting Johannesburg’s commuters to work and back home again.
But when she first started driving trains for the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) she wasn’t prepared for the threats she would receive from commuters fed up with the country’s ailing rail system.
Amid Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula’s efforts to fix the South Africa’s trains, Sithole and her colleagues are calling for the safety of women train drivers to be put on the agenda of the minister’s recently launched “war room” at Prasa.
“As a train driver, and being a woman as well, it becomes a challenge because the kind of passengers we transport — it feels to us like they believe that a woman only belongs in the kitchen,” Sithole says, her brightly painted fingernails making her hand gestures even more expressive.
“When the train is faulty, it has nothing to do with you or with you being a woman: it is a mechanical fact. But they will attack you.”
Sithole says Prasa’s 293 women drivers are left exposed when trains break down. Not a week goes by during which train drivers do not have to contend with the challenges that accompany driving faulty trains, she says.
Last week, Mbalula announced that the work of the ministerial war room on Prasa had begun. According to a statement from his department, the war room has three focus areas: “service recovery, safety management and accelerated implementation of the modernisation programme”.
Prasa has been beset with operational challenges in recent years, with reports of widespread cable theft and vandalism.
According to the rail agency’s annual report for the last financial year, more than 13% of scheduled trains were cancelled during the year and 26% of trains operated were delayed. There were also 97 safety-related incidents that year.
Last year, a woman train driver was stripped naked, hit with a brick and dragged into the bushes along the rail line in Pretoria. The attack was part of a series of protests on the rail line between Pienaarspoort and Pretoria.
Sithole says that when a train breaks down, a driver “cannot just stand there” because they are expected to conduct first-line maintenance.
This category of maintenance applies to minor faults — electrical trips, problems with the motor alternator set and vacuum exhauster — that can be rectified without the technical experts being called out. But conducting first-line maintenance often requires drivers to leave the relative safety of the drivers’ cab.
“But the question is now: how do you get to do that when there are people there busy screaming at you and calling you all these names?” Sithole says.
She recalls one day when she had to leave the cab to move the train on to a different track. “You have to move it from point A to point B and you have to walk around: you are walking around the train alone with no security, mos,” Sithole says.
“And then this other one says: ‘Let’s rape her.’ It’s a group of men and even if you want to defend yourself, you can’t. They are men and they see you as an object that they can do what they wish to.”
But this isn’t the worst run-in Sithole has had during her time as a train driver.
“When I started, there were two guys who got inside the cab. I didn’t understand because I had just arrived. I asked: ‘What are you doing here?’ And the other guy said: ‘Keep quiet, you are making noise.’ Something in me felt like these guys were going to attack me,” she says.
“They were pushing me down. So now I had to fight. I had to fight for my life. I didn’t know if they wanted to rape me. So I fought until they jumped off the train.”
Rofhiwa Dlamini* recounts how a group of commuters tried to break into the cab while she waited for a technician to arrive before she could drive the train to Park Station in Johannesburg.
“It was very scary. It is scary when you are in there and they are banging on the doors. They grab everything that they can break … They try to get in by all means,” she says. “And you don’t know what they want to do when they get inside.”
The mother of two says that a guard is usually stationed on the other end of the train, leaving drivers without security.
“You are alone. It is just you and your god and these horrible people who look at you and don’t see a human being,” Dlamini says. “They don’t understand that we are also at work. We need to work to support our families.”
Prasa spokesperson Nana Zenani told the Mail & Guardian that the rail agency deploys security personnel to escort train drivers on corridors that have been identified as hot spots.
“The department has also deployed security personnel at all turnaround points for the escort of train crews as they change coaches.”
According to Zenani, train drivers are trained to perform first-line maintenance to reduce delays to the train service when faults are experienced en route.
She emphasised that the rail agency is “vehemently against the abuse of our employees”.
For Sithole and Dlamini, the abuse they are subjected to on the job has had a mental toll.
“It is traumatic. It is draining emotionally as well. So now it has kind of like taught you just to switch off,” Sithole says.
Dlamini says she has had to put on a brave face for her children.
“Sometimes when you leave home, you are so scared that you will never come back … And after going through all this, you still have to put on a happy face to the kids. Because you don’t want to explain to them the kind of trauma you are going through,” Dlamini says, recalling a time her son caught her breaking down in tears as she confided in her friend about the attacks.
“You don’t want that trauma, and that stress, to be passed on to your children.”
The two women hope that getting their concerns added to the list of those being addressed by Prasa’s “war room” will go a long way to changing this reality.
* Not their real names