PRASA

Great balls of fire: Rail agency in death spiral

By Sikonathi Mantshantsha 29 November 2019
Caption
Four trains were set alight at the Cape Town Train Station in the early hours of Thursday morning, 27 November 2019 leaving thousands of commuters stranded. No injuries were reported and fire and rescue services spent two and a half hours putting out fires in the four trains. Western Cape Metrorail spokesperson Riana Scott said the the company suspects arsonists were involved. (Photo: Tessa Knight)

The arson that destroyed 18 train carriages at Cape Town Station comes as no surprise to passengers, employees and other stakeholders in the passenger rail industry. Insiders who spoke to Daily Maverick say it is a natural consequence of the incompetence of the bad decisions made by the organisation’s leadership recently.

At the end of October, the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) cancelled all contracts of its security providers, firing about 3,000 security guards countrywide and leaving its infrastructure unguarded and ripe for thieves to loot and vandalise as they please.

The fire gutted the carriages in Cape Town, equivalent to two train sets, in the early hours of Thursday 28 November 2019. The cause of the fire is thought to be arson. While the cost of the damage is yet to be determined, Prasa recently bought two new train sets at a cost of R146 million each.

This is the second major attack on Prasa infrastructure this year, after another fire ripped through two platforms at the same station in April, destroying two coaches. In October 2018, another fire destroyed eight carriages. Over the past three years, more than 140 train carriages were destroyed by arson around the country as angry commuters let down by atrocious service took their frustration on the assets, bringing the cost to billions.

The worsening situation is also man-made, however.

Nkosinathi Sishi, the interim chief executive officer of Prasa, told a media briefing in November that the utility had cancelled the contracts of more than 20 security companies because in they were found by the Public Protector in 2015 to be irregularly appointed. But senior managers say they warned against the cancellation of the security contracts before there were duly appointed replacement contracts. Sishi then said Prasa would rely on its own internal security compliment of 3,000 personnel, as well as the police.

Since then it’s been one season, with large tracts of electrical cable being stripped for sale in the scrap yards. The Central Line running between the Langa/Nyanga townships and the Cape Town city centre has been closed for the past month, when thieves made away with unguarded power lines and steel from the tracks. Millions of passengers who cannot afford alternative forms of transport have been left stranded as a result of the train cancellations.

A senior manager in Gauteng says the former security guards who were dismissed with the cancellations of the contracts would most likely have a hand in the destruction of the infrastructure:

Remember the security guards patrolled the system, they protect it, so they know where its most valuable assets are. If a guy has been in the system for five to ten years, he knows it back to front. He knows where the long copper cables are. So if you just fire the company that employs him, and the company fires him, he vents against the asset he has been guarding.”

Firing the previous security companies before there were replacement guards meant the infrastructure is ripe for picking, said the executive.

We waved these people. We told them: an irregular contract we can handle. But you create a disaster you can’t handle when you leave infrastructure unguarded. But this board and the executive have no clue what they are doing.”

Weeks after their dismissal, three security companies took Prasa to the Western Cape high court, praying the court to order their contracts be reinstated and that the court rules that Prasa had endangered the lives of passengers and employees when it terminated the contracts. Civil society organisation #UniteBehind joined the three applicants as a friend of the court.

Judge president John Hlophe ruled in favour of the applicants – Sechaba Protection Services, High Goals Investments and Chuma Security Services – on 19 November 2019, ordering Prasa to reinstate the contracts until it had appointed their replacements to take over, according to Group Up.

While Prasa said it would respect the court’s decision, the security workers have not yet been reinstated. In various offices in Gauteng, the former security guards went on the rampage for several weeks, demanding to be reinstated to their old jobs, and for their unpaid October salaries to be paid. At Umjantshi House in Johannesburg, they stormed and vandalised the offices and vehicles before being chased away by riot police who had to fire tear gas to disperse them.

However, it is not only the debacle of the dismissed security officers that is hurting Prasa and running it to the ground. The incompetence of the management team has played a much bigger role.

In the Western Cape region Prasa employs 900 guards who have to patrol its infrastructure of depots and guard the overhead power cables and the train tracks,” says a security manager in the regional office. “Every night and every day the security guards must be armed in their patrols as they have to protect the infrastructure. But the whole region has only 50 firearms. Tell me, how do deal with that?”

The manager claims that controls have long broken down at the utility, with nobody holding employees in the security unit accountable. This results in guards clocking in to work at night, then use vehicles supposedly to go on patrol, while in effect they go back home to sleep.

He says Prasa is paying about R3 million in overtime claims while it is not getting the benefit of that expenditure.

In March Sishi became the seventh interim chief executive to be appointed to the position since July 2015, when the last permanent chief executive officer, Lucky Montana resigned amid evidence of corruption and negative findings of corruption by Public Protector Thuli Madonsela. The six brief holders of the office before Sishi are all by the wayside, felled by scandals of corruption and political interference.

The interim board led by chairman Khanyisile Kweyama has been in place since April 2018. It replaced another interim board appointed by former transport minister Blade Nzimande, which also fell due to allegations of corruption on the part of some of the directors and executives. Prasa last had a permanently appointed board in 2017, when the term of chairman Popo Molefe’s term expired.

The blind seem to be leading the blind on the management of Prasa. A human resources practitioner, chairman Kweyama brings no business management experience. A teacher, Sishi was brought in as a non-executive director, also by Nzimande, before being asked to be a caretaker CEO when another Nzimande appointee fell by the wayside, amid allegations of malfeasance and incompetence.

They are all certainly outsiders to the railway industry, as are the rest of the board members. Transport minister Fikile Mbalula is no better. A career politician who spends time taking selfies for social media, Mbalula has no real-world work experience outside of politics. The term of the current board expired in October, but Mbalula simply extended it without any explanation.

Questioned in November on the long overdue appointment of a new, competent board, Mbalula only said he’d appoint a new board before the end of the year.

Operations at Prasa, meanwhile, have been deteriorating at a fast pace. The utility said in its financial report for the year ended March that it had only met 26% of its own performance targets. Passenger revenue dropped 48% to R1.2 billion in the period. But the operations have since worsened in the intervening period, with passengers finding alternative transport means and abandoning the cheap but poor, or non-existent, service.

A Daily Maverick attempt to ride a train on Thursday in Johannesburg, ended in failure before it has begun. This reporter purchased a return ticket to Germiston, an old mining town east of the city, and spent three hours in a dilapidated and dirty station reeking of urine while waiting for a train that was not to come; another cable had been stolen on the route serving the busy townships of Natalspruit in Germiston, the towns of Springs and Benoni, as well as Pretoria.

In the three hours at Park Station, only four train movements were observed.

With no security anywhere, bored passengers walked and sat on the tracks while waiting for their trains, a security breach that used to attract immediate arrest when the system still worked. DM

Additional reporting by Sune Payne

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