South Africa


Promises, promises: A fact check on what has been done to ensure commuter safety in South Africa

Promises, promises: A fact check on what has been done to ensure commuter safety in South Africa
Commuters at Cape Town train station, 28 September 2018. Photo: Leila Dougan

Pretoria’s tragic train accident which killed three people and injured more than 300 others once again put the spotlight on train safety in South Africa. Daily Maverick looks at key problems and the status of promises and action plans made by officials in 2018.

Train services in South Africa are off the rails. Numerous incidents of train derailments, vandalism, arson and assaults have seen Metrorail’s customer satisfaction drop from 70% to 52% in five years, according to a Prasa presentation to Parliament in 2018. In spite of the multitude of promises made by officials to fix the trains, commuters are forced to endure daily hardships.

1. Problem: Vandalism and safety:

The promise: A new rail unit

Between 2015 and 2017, there were 711 reported incidents of cable theft and 1,385 incidents of contact crimes reported on rail property in the Western Cape, according to SAPS Rail Unit officials in September 2018.

In addition, the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) said 45% of rolling stock — nationally — had been vandalised between December 2016 and September 2018.

A joint meeting was called in February 2018 between Prasa, the City of Cape Town and the provincial department of Transport and Public Works to discuss the creation of a joint rail unit that would ensure safety for commuters on Cape Town’s notoriously unsafe and failing rail infrastructure. The decision was made for all the relevant government structures and state entities to jointly fund this unit.

But by July, conflicting reports emerged, revealing that Prasa had not contributed its share of the R16 million required to fund the unit. Then Transport Minister Blade Nzimande accused then the city of Cape Town mayco member for Transport and Urban Development, Brett Herron, of “politicising” issues around train safety and security in Cape Town. Prasa subsequently paid its share.

Eventually, the political dispute was resolved and the rail unit was launched by Nzimande in October — the end of Transport Month — to much fanfare. But political undercurrents were evident, with the DA-led city and provincial government holding another launch two days later.

The unit will see 100 trained rail officers on Cape Town’s trains for one year. The unit is mandated to protect Metrorail assets and infrastructure as well as ensuring commuter safety.

Despite political contestation behind the launch — the City of Cape Town and Metrorail has said the unit achieved great results within the first two months of operation, including:

  • Confiscation of 800kg of railway signal cables;

  • Confiscation of 379.5m of cables; and

  • 36 arrests — including for assault, malicious damage to property and possession of stolen property.

When asked if Metrorail in Cape Town wanted the rail unit to be made permanent, spokesperson Riana Scott told Daily Maverick:

It is a tripartite project and therefore Metrorail cannot make such a decision in isolation.”

Commuters in Cape Town can wait up to three hours in the afternoon for transport back home due to the national bus strike. Commuters pictured outside the Cape Town train station wait in line for taxi services on a Friday afternoon, 20 April 2018. Photo by Leila Dougan

2. Problem: Unstable leadership at Prasa

Promise: A stable, functional board

We have inherited an organisation that is almost broken and has reached crisis point,” said interim Prasa board chairperson Khanyisile Kweyama in October 2018.

At a parliamentary meeting in April, transport minister Blade Nzimande said management problems at Prasa needed to be addressed permanently. There have been eight board changes since August 2014, with calls for stable leadership to ensure the state-owned entity gets back on track.

Kweyama and the rest of the interim board were appointed by Nzimande in April, for the mandated one-year term, following conflicting reports about the board’s previous chair — Tintswalo Makhubele — who repeatedly failed to pitch up to parliamentary meetings about the problems Cape Town train commuters face.

In the same meeting at which Nzimande said Prasa needed to address its management problems, the entity’s secretary Lindikhaya Zide said due to a lack of permanent leadership, the company felt “government doesn’t take us seriously.” Zide told a committee meeting that he would have preferred a board to stay for three years instead of dealing having an interim board.

Zide had twice been appointed acting group CEO between March 2017 and May 2018. There had been six acting interim group CEOs between June 2015 and June 2018.

The interim board’s contract expires in June 2019, with no confirmation yet from the ministry if the present board could be made permanent.

3. Problem: Prasa’s lack of financial statements

Promise: The statements would be handed in by end of June 2018

In June 2018, the interim board of Prasa said the struggling entities’ financial statements would be submitted to Parliament by the end of that month — after those documents had been outstanding since May 2017.

During a session in Parliament in November 2017 reported by GroundUp, it was revealed Prasa had failed to submit its 2016/2017 financial statements. But by February 2018, the documents had not been delivered.

The documents were finally submitted to Parliament at the end of September 2018 — but with shocking results. Financial statements revealed a loss of R 928-million. Irregular expenditure for the 2016/2017 financial year stood at just under R20-billion.

Within days of the 2016/2017 document’s release, Prasa’s 2017/2018 financial statement was released. Showing an improvement, the entity’s irregular expenditure came to R4-billion and its losses stood at R925-million.

4. Problem: Lack of a safety plan

Promise: Prasa would release 12-point safety plan

A key aspect the new board was to focus on was the development of a safety plan, Daily Maverick reported in October 2018, when Prasa and the Railway Safety Regulator were called before Parliament to discuss a train collision in Kempton Park.

At the time, interim board chair Kweyama said the entity would present a 12-point plan to the Department of Transport — which would be made available to the portfolio committee on transport. No deadline was given for the entity to submit the plan to Parliament or to the transport department.

To date, there is no plan uploaded to the Prasa website. The spokesperson for Transport Minister Blade Nzimande, Ishmael Mnisi, had not responded to questions by Daily Maverick about whether these documents had been handed to the minister.

Commuters at the Cape Town train station, 28 September 2018. Photo: Leila Dougan

5. Problem: #Prasaleaks maladministration claims

Promise: Parliamentary State Capture Inquiry to be tackled ‘later’

The portfolio committee on transport is one of four parliamentary committees dealing with and finding the roots of State Capture and maladministration at state-owned entities in South Africa.

The committee is to look at allegations of maladministration based on former Public Protector Thuli Madonsela’s 2015 Derailed report.

Madonsela’s report focused on maladministration, tender irregularities and financial mismanagement. Leaks from news publication GroundUp labelled as the “#PrasaLeaks” showed how maladministration and corruption had brought Prasa — and effectively the rail system — to its knees.

In November 2017, chairperson of Parliament’s transport committee Dikiledi Magadzi said the committee would deal with allegations of State Capture at the entity — as mandated by Parliament — “later.”

In March 2018, the committee announced that it had finalised the terms of reference for the investigation into maladministration at Prasa. The committee has since been preoccupied with amendments to the Road Accident Amendment Bill — which took up most of 2018.

No date has been set for the investigation, and with an election coming up soon it would seem unlikely that a thorough probe such as that into Eskom by the public enterprises committee would take place any time soon.

Through all the problems and promises made by Prasa and other governmental officials, one Daily Sun reporter summed up the frustration — on the ground — in September, with the one question commuters want to be answered:

When will train operations run smoothly?” DM


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