Something mysterious, queasily spectacular, and extremely dangerous is happening in Cape Town.
In the space of a few months, half of the city’s entire stock of more than 80 suburban trains has been set on fire and taken out of action.
That has prompted chaos and frustration for thousands of commuters, and deep unease for officials unsure if the arsonists are petty criminals, sophisticated gangs, or maybe even political forces seeking to discredit their rivals.
Viral videos have shown a series of burning carriages – billowing with black smoke while electric cables crack and fizzle overhead – screeching to a gentle halt in different train stations in the South African port city, as commuters rush to escape the fires.
So far, no-one has been hurt.
How big is the problem?
Yet despite growing pressure on investigators, and the introduction of undercover police on many trains, the authorities have yet to crack the mystery of Cape Town’s burning trains. The impact on the city – still recovering from a crippling drought – has been severe.
“In my mind there is some sort of campaign, or sinister force, that is behind this,” said Brett Herron, who oversees the city’s transport systems in the mayor’s office.
“For me, it’s not random – it just seems to be too well orchestrated. We’ve had about 140 carriages destroyed [in] an almost weekly occurrence.”
Our system is operating at about a third of the capacity required, so there is a massive decline in passenger numbers,” he added.
On a recent morning, hundreds of passengers who had waited for over an hour at Retreat station, in the shadow of Table Mountain, rushed to cross the lines and scramble onto a graffiti-covered train that arrived, without warning, on the wrong platform.
“It’s been a nightmare for us,” said one young woman. “It’s very unsafe – you take your life in your hands every time you get on a train.
“Always late. Always late for work now,” said an elderly woman beside her.
“Maybe it’s sabotage. I don’t know,” said an undercover police officer who, like the other people in the carriage, declined to give his name.
Who is to blame?