Railway blues

Every morning the area is littered with rubbish left behind by the illegal squatters.

Woodstock’s residents have sounded the alarm about a new squatter camp popping up a few hundred metres from the site of the infamous Mascani railway settlement.

In the last month, the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (PRASA) has torn down more than 45 illegal shacks along the railway lines near Woodstock, but the squatters keep coming back, and the agency says it had noticed a spike in theft and vandalism.

Jonathan Combrink, who lives near the settlements, said he had been robbed near them and he had seen drugs sold daily and prostitutes soliciting clients. He had also heard gunshots.

“These are the very same problems that were happening at Mascani, and I will not be surprised if these are the very same people involved in these illegal activities.

“It’s disgusting and quite frankly does not add any value to the an area which is supposed to be upcoming,” he said.

Mr Combrink said he had reported several incidents to the police, but many other residents were too afraid to speak up.

“These are hardened criminals living in these settlements. I for one have had run-ins with a few of them already, and they certainly do not mess around.

“The people are too afraid to report these matters, because of what these people are capable of. Now it’s either I open my window and stare into this problem everyday or I speak up, with the intention of getting rid of this problem.”

Another resident, Marc Osstyn, believes the new settlement has started encroaching on privacy, causing a “hell of a mess” and the squatters were getting “pretty creative with drug-taking at all hours of the day”.

“Since the successful fencing of the area normally populated on the other side of the tracks, more and more individuals are spending their days and nights under the trees by the Strand Street fence,” he said, adding: “It has become extremely unnerving.”

Prasa says it has suffered several thefts with prowlers slipping into the rail reserve through gaping holes in the Strand Street fence.

Prasa spokesperson Zinobulali Mihi said cases of theft had been reported to police.

Prasa had appealed to surrounding industries to install fences and mend broken ones. It had also blocked access to dilapidated bridge and put out a tender for repairs to the wall between Salt River and Woodstock.

Problems with the new settlement, Ms Mihi said, were “recent” and, despite evictions, the vagrants kept returning.

Squatting on the line exposed Prasa assets to theft, causing train delays. It also made it unsafe for maintenance teams to do work on the lines, and the high cost of securing the rail reserve diverted funding from other critical areas.

Woodstock police could not be reached for comment before this edition went to print.