Transport minister Fikile Mbalula’s mandate is clear: Either fix the embattled rail system or he’s fired. This was evident during Tuesday’s launch of the State of Safety Report by the Railway Safety Regulator.
“It is top priority, the issue of fixing passenger rail for me. If I fail on that, I don’t need to wait for the call by the President (Cyril Ramaphosa) at night, I will just pack my bag and go. I have failed, I will go,” he said on Tuesday morning in Stellenbosch, outside Cape Town.
Mbalula was in the university town to formally release the safety regulator’s State of Safety Report 2018/2019, and open the Rail Safety Conference at the start of Transport Month in South Africa. This conference was ironically held at a luxurious golf estate, far removed from any train station or angry commuters, frustrated over train delays, overcrowding and vandalism.
While Mbalula and the senior management of the safety regulator wanted to speak about the rail safety component during the media briefing on Tuesday, it was clear journalists had come to hear about the embattled Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa).
A journalist told the minister that those in the room were questioning if anything had changed since the media (including this reporter) had reported extensively on the arson and vandalism on the Western Cape passenger rail service, particularly Cape Town. Cape Town’s rail service has seen 176 arson attacks reported on its network between 2015 and 2019. This is coupled with vandalism, train delays and cancellations on the network.
But while the safety regulator wanted to stick to issues it can speak comfortably about, Mbalula spoke extensively on the rail network.
“Passenger rail in Cape Town, that’s where we basically find our biggest challenges,” said the minister who was appointed in May 2019 after the national and provincial elections.
Mbalula spoke about the Prasa War Room, security on trains, the erection of shacks alongside and within train stations and even, at one point, commented on mediocrity in South African society. His characteristic bravado was evident as he spoke of various issues, including what he labelled an attitude of entitlement by South Africans, apartheid-era land leases, land expropriation and how “government became Father Christmas after ’94”.
“The situation (of) the trains should improve… next year (2020) for the better,” he said, getting back to the topic at hand: commuting conditions for people who have to use the train. Mbalula had, in fact, taken a train in June from Khayelitsha to Philippi Station in Cape Town, but could not proceed to Langa station, his journey interrupted as two people had been struck by a train, which caused several delays on the trip. On that journey, Mbalula had spoken with confidence and humour about his plans to fix an entity that has been described in Parliament by commuters as “atrocious”.
On Tuesday, Mbalula still seemed confident, but with less humour.
“We are going to have many, many new trains; I can’t give you the statistics, but we are going to have many, many new trains… to ensure that we improve the railway situation,” said Mbalula, adding, “our trains are vandalised by our own people, by thugs, by criminality — there is no justification for criminality.”
The minister said the high rate of unemployment led to the “justification for the lawlessness of people getting into trains, vandalising them”. He said it was “undeniable that the quality of rail has deteriorated” over a number of years, “which has had an adverse effect on safety”.
Despite the fact that there has yet to be any improvement passed on to commuters, Mbalula promised:
“The main passenger line in the Western Cape will be reopened and it will be protected and have security— and that is what will happen.” DM