While Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula patted himself and the management and board of the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) on the back for what he said were improved passenger train services, the train operator has met only 26% of its predetermined performance targets. It has also spent less than 30% of its capital expenditure budget during the 2019 financial year. Of the R12.7-billion capital budget, Prasa managed to spend only R3.7-billion during the year ended March, it says in its annual report.
Reporting back on the progress of the War Room on Monday 4 November 2019, Mbalula said he was elated at the progress made over the past 14 weeks to help the train operator bring stability and recover lost capabilities that have brought the utility to its knees. Mbalula said he was pleased with the organisation’s performance since launching the intervention in August as services like train availability have increased and some commuters have come back to Prasa’s Metrorail trains.
But the situation on the train tracks, depots, stations and the audited accounts tell a totally different story. Mbalula might as well have been talking about a different company, say some of the employees and contractors who spoke to Daily Maverick on condition of anonymity.
While Mbalula was painting a glowing picture of the organisation in Johannesburg, about 60km away at Pretoria’s Bosman station, hundreds of security guards who had been dismissed from their jobs, and had not been paid their October salaries, went on the rampage, protesting outside the facility. A regional security manager fired shots and a person was injured in the scuffle. The manager was taken into police custody.
The following day, Tuesday 5 November the unrest moved to Umjantshi House, the regional office near Park Station in Johannesburg, where hundreds of security guards rioted in protest against non-payment and the termination of their jobs. Some of the protesting guards stormed the office building while others pelted employees and vehicles in the yard with stones. Employees ran for safety while the police were called to disperse the rioters.
Prasa tried to get an urgent court interdict against the striking security guards but the South Gauteng High Court struck the matter off the roll saying Prasa must first pay them their outstanding salaries. Striking security workers are owed as much as three months of outstanding salary payments.
WhatsApp chat groups of Prasa employees also showed photos and videos of hundreds of people protesting in Germiston, Pretoria and Johannesburg.
During the weekend, electrical overhead power lines were cut and cables stolen in many parts of the Central Line in the Western Cape. This is the region’s busiest route, ferrying commuters from the Cape Flats and the townships of Nyanga and Khayelitsha to Cape Town. The damage resulted in train services being suspended for a week, with commuters who normally buy upfront monthly tickets being told to make alternative travel arrangements.
WhatsApp images showed overhead power lines dangling dangerously with hundreds of metres of electrical cables stolen along the route. Technicians who needed to fix the infrastructure in volatile gangland areas were unable to do so as they had no armed protection to cover them.
At the end of October, Prasa cancelled all its security contracts with outside contractors, an essential service that it had relied on for half the security workforce of 6,000 personnel to guard its infrastructure, commuters and employees countrywide. These guards were employed by 20 security companies contracted to protect infrastructure such as the electrical lines powering the trains; the tracks, depots and train stations.
The security contracts were cancelled because they had been irregularly procured by the previous board, and the public protector had ruled the contracts were unlawful, said Prasa acting chief executive officer Nkosinathi Sishi at the media briefing with Mbalula. Prasa would rely on its own internal security workforce of 3,000 people and the South African Police Service until it had run a new security tender process, said Sishi.
“To ensure that Prasa abstains from and no longer continues with the irregular contracts, Prasa issued the last letter of termination to the private security service providers on 31 October 2019,” said a note issued to Prasa employees and some of the security companies on 1 November.
“Regional security management is urgently requested to ensure that they develop a contingency deployment plan that covers all the critical Prasa operational areas and the areas previously guarded by the terminated private security companies.”
The Germiston Prasa complex east of Johannesburg also came under attack on Monday afternoon and Tuesday, with dismissed and unpaid security guards rioting, according to some of the employees Daily Maverick spoke to. Stations on the route also came under attack, with cables stolen. This terminated services to the townships of Daveyton in Benoni, KwaThema in Springs, and Katlehong in Germiston. Services to Pretoria also have to go through the Germiston complex.
Mbalula, meanwhile, was talking up the progress at the well-secured regional office.
“Security of passengers, workers and assets remains at the core of our interventions and a source of serious concern. This is one of the areas where we need to redouble our efforts to ensure that those who use our services are free from harm. While the work done by Prasa in addressing security gaps is encouraging, we need to accelerate our interventions,” he said.
Not many among the utility’s senior employees bought his Kool-Aid.
“These people have willingly plunged the company into this chaos and mess, which is costing us millions of rand,” said one senior manager, referring to the board and management decision to terminate the contracts of the security companies before others were in place.
“This thing was totally avoidable. We kept telling them it cannot be done this way. This will cost Prasa hundreds of millions and it is totally avoidable. Yes sure, the contracts were irregular, but why cause this much chaos and plunge the company into such a mess when they could have put proper tender processes in place?”
Sitting at the regional office the day before, Mbalula waxed lyrical and said all was going well at Prasa. He expressed confidence in the interim board led by Khanyisile Kweyama, and the management team led by Sishi.
“I am elated at the progress the team is making,” he said.
According to Mbalula, on-time train performance had jumped by 11% to 63% in some parts of the network, and hundreds of thousands of commuters have come back to use the train for their daily commute to work.
Mbalula also boasted the utility was on track to boost its infrastructure, having appointed 62 service providers to help in the recovery and refurbishment of coaches. This would help make more train sets available to serve commuters. But two contractors Daily Maverick spoke to and three senior employees laughed this off, pointing out that Prasa had not advertised or issued any tenders this year. As well as the fact that 60% of train sets are out of service due to lack of spares.
As a result, thousands of people employed by suppliers who have no work have been retrenched. A supplier who worked on the general overhaul of coaches and ad hoc rolling stock repairs and maintenance has had to retrench 37 people. He had 18 employees in each of three depots he was contracted to in the Johannesburg region.
According to this businessman, Prasa had 68 service providers who each employed a total of 54 people at depots. This amounts to 3,672 people who may have lost their jobs in the last two years due to Prasa terminating maintenance on rolling stock.
Of his remaining 18 employees, eight still have permanent jobs while the other 10 come in as and when required, said the Johannesburg-based businessman. He cannot be named for fear of reprisals.
“To the best of my knowledge, Prasa has not yet announced the successful bidders for general overhaul or ad hoc repairs tenders. So what was Mbalula talking about? Why is the minister misleading us?” he asked.
At the office, Mbalula was singing a totally different tune:
“Progress has been made towards ensuring more train carriages and improved security. The War Room continues to monitor available train sets on a daily basis. Central to achieving our goals to reduce delays and cancellations to a bare minimum, there has been a focused effort to ensure that target of 164 train sets availability by 31 December remains on course. The Gauteng province has increased its train sets availability by three from 71 to 74, whilst KwaZulu-Natal also recovered three sets from 23 to 26,” said the minister of transport.
All of this will have a major positive impact not only for Prasa, but for the broader economy, said Mbalula.
“If all our trains depart and arrive on time, we will not only ensure that people don’t lose their jobs due to chronic late-coming, but will help them perform better at work and help the economy.”
Easier said than done. The annual report makes for grimmer reading. More on this in the next instalment on Prasa. DM
"Charms strike the sight but merit wins the soul." ~ Alexander Pope