ANALYSIS

The Long and Winding Road: Fikile Mbalula

By Suné Payne 7 June 2019

Within minutes of his appointment as new Minister of Transport, Fikile Mbalula went on Twitter, as he usually does, and made a ‘blood in your alcohol’ joke, in reference to his predecessor, Blade Nzimande. This was followed by a joke about musician Sjava’s outfit at this year’s SAMAs, a loose reference to his constituents – taxi owners. But jokes and Twitter aside, Mbalula heads into a department that could very well be the backbone of South Africa’s economy, especially when it comes to passenger rail.

Renewed arson attacks in Cape Town, Golden Arrow buses that are the scene of robberies, a taxi industry that has sporadic flare-ups of violence and the latest attacks on truck drivers means new Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula should spend less time on Twitter and more time focused on fixing SA’s transport department and its’ entities.

In one of the first acts as a minister, Mbalula tweeted “is there blood in your alcohol?” in reference to this video by his predecessor Blade Nzimande, who had made a word blunder during an Easter Weekend Road Safety awareness campaign where breathalysers would be used to detect alcohol in your blood system.

But jokes aside, the department through its entities are tasked with ensuring the transportation system in South Africa runs smoothly- especially for commuters in the country. These include rail, bus, taxi, aircraft and boats. But these modes of transport have come under fire over a period of time, especially the embattled Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa).

The state-owned entity receives the biggest chunk of the department’s budget in the 2018/2109 financial year. Mbalula inherits a state-owned entity which is crippled by arson attacks, old dilapidated train carriages and constant vandalism. Attempts to clean up the entity has seen several officials suspended or placed on leave by the interim board on various issues related to corruption.

Between 2015 and 2018, there had been 175 instances of arson attacks at stations around Cape Town. After a quiet six months, another arson attack occurred on Easter Sunday.

Mbalula’s first test will be to bring stability to the struggling entity, which still has not had a permanent board since July 2017 when Popo Molefe and his board’s term expired. In April 2018, Khanyisile Kweyama – Madam Fix It – was appointed board chair alongside a brand new interim board for six months.

Rail activist coalition #UniteBehind told Daily Maverick that the organisation hopes the new minister will be more effective than Nzimande.

Nzimande was unwilling to work with civil society organisations and we hope that will change,” said the coalition.

But what does Mbalula need to do within the first 100 days as a new transport minister?

We are still waiting for a commuter-centred safety plan for rail commuters. Commuters face the fear of violence, overcrowded and unsafe trains and women face sexual harassment on a daily basis. This needs to be a priority for the new Minister of Transport. He also needs to look at the 2,000 carriages that are sitting waiting to be repaired,” said #UniteBehind.

The coalition, which blockaded President Cyril Ramaphosa’s motorcade during the launch of two new modernised trains in April, told Daily Maverick, “we are willing to engage and work with him to #FixOurTrains. We hope his knowledge of police will help secure the rails for commuters, stop the sabotage of rail assets, and ensure the prosecution of the corrupt”.

New DA Shadow Transport Minister Chris Hunsinger told Daily Maverick that Mbalula’s appointment comes on the back of an “interrupted agenda” within the department, which has seen four ministers within the space of three years.

Mbalula’s focus should be the implementation and prosecution of the outstanding investigations into Prasa, namely former Public Protector Thuli Madonsela’s 2015 Derailed report into allegations of corruption and maladministration at the embattled agency, said Hunsinger.

Commuters want three things – “safety, clean trains and a system that runs on time,” said Hunsinger, who questioned: “If we can do it with Gautrain, why can’t we do it for Metrorail?” DM

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