South Africa

GLIMMER OF LIGHT?

Prasa boss praised for plan to fix broken rail agency

Prasa boss praised for plan to fix broken rail agency
Prasa administrator Bongisizwe Mpondo. (Photo: Suné Payne)

‘That place is broken and needs time to fix,’ Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula told Parliament on Monday. He was there to introduce a man who is tasked with one of the most difficult jobs in the country: fixing South Africa’s broken passenger rail agency.

Possibly for the first time, a full committee praised the head of the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa), for a plan to get things back on track at the rail agency. 

Prasa administrator Bongisizwe Mpondo and Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula addressed Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Transport on Monday to discuss the rail agency’s strategic plans for the financial year and to engage Mpondo on his year-long tenure as administrator. 

It was Mpondo’s first appearance before the committee, following his appointment as administrator in December. In February this year, members of the committee questioned why he had not come to Parliament when Mbalula addressed the committee on the struggling rail agency. 

Mpondo seemed to impress the committee as various MPs lauded the administrator for the plan represented to get the entity to a state of stability. Over the past few years, Prasa has gone through bleeding finances and multiple investigations of corruption and maladministration. This culminated in investigations by the Special Investigation Unit and more recently, testimony before the Zondo Commission of Inquiry into State Capture

On Monday – surprisingly – the committee engaged with Mpondo and every MP praised his plan to get Prasa up and running. The plan, albeit described by EFF MP Nontando Nolutshungu as lacking factors such as detailed financial indicators, was described by MPs as “comprehensive” and “detailed” by legislatures who are desperate for change at the entity. 

DA MP Chris Hunsinger said that this was the eighth turnaround plan he’s seen and it had “measurable content”. 

Previously, the committee had a bad history with the former interim board led by Khanyisile Kweyama.  

Mbalula in December 2019, after an “embarrassing” briefing before Scopa, Parliament’s finance watchdog, fired the interim board and appointed Mpondo as an administrator. At the moment, Mpondo is both board of control and executive management, only accountable to Mbalula. 

Interestingly enough, the plan submitted to Parliament is almost the same as presented to journalists last Thursday. Highlighted in both Thursday and Monday’s presentations was delaying limited services to the Central and Mabopane lines, filling vacancies, rethinking commuter policies, cleaning up governance issues and most importantly, getting rolling stock to where it’s needed the most – railway lines to provide a modern, safe and reliable service. 

Covid-19 shutdown of trains sees rail agency lose almost R200m in revenue

Additionally, MPs asked what the plans were to keep passengers safe once Metrorail, the commuter rail division, reopens when South Africa moves down to Level 3 lockdown. Currently, trains are not operational, despite Prasa submitting plans to the Transport Department to allow limited service under Level 4 restrictions. Mpondo said there were plans to procure equipment and make use of extra marshals and security personnel.  

“We will make sure that the staff in the frontlines are covered,” said Mpondo. He confirmed that the entity has ordered stock – which was similar to what was said last Thursday to journalists. 

But at the end of the day, it all comes down to fixing Prasa. Mbalula, who has often described Prasa as broken, told the committee “that place is broken and needs time to fix” and that he and the rest of the team were trying to bring stability to the rail agency. DM

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