Off the rails: Prasa bungles multimillion-rand plan to hire thousands of volunteers as ‘guards’
The Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa planned to spend close to R200-million of its security budget on an ill-conceived community watch project that was rushed through despite questions about its funding and rationale. Now, the bungled scheme is on hold.
Desperate to halt the theft and vandalism of billions of rands in railway infrastructure, the new board of the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) conceived an ambitious plan: 5,000 volunteers would be hired as patrollers, supervised by ANC military veterans, at a cost of about R200-million.
Transport minister Fikile Mbalula himself proudly rolled out the scheme in March under the name, People’s Responsibility to Protect Project (PR2P).
A month later, further recruitment for the project was put on hold. Newly appointed group CEO Zolani Matthews hit the brakes on its implementation days after his arrival.
Problems amaBhungane identified include:
- Questions over how the plan was rushed through during the December holiday season;
- Opposition from Prasa’s security experts who considered the project unworkable;
- Questions from the finance department over unrealistic budget allocations;
- Lack of compliance with national standards for security personnel; and
- The removal of the project’s national director following complaints about its management.
The PR2P’s future is now under internal audit review to ensure “that all requirements are met before we can continue with the roll-out”, according to written answers Prasa provided to amaBhungane.
The project appears to be just the latest in a series of missteps since Mbalula took over ministerial responsibility for Prasa, vowing to “fix” the “broken organisation”.
Criminals descend upon rail infrastructure
Prasa’s railway infrastructure became easy pickings for criminals in late 2019 when the agency’s former board, headed by Khanyisile Kweyama, mismanaged the cancellation of security contracts.
The contracts had been identified as irregular in a report by former Public Protector Thuli Madonsela, but the Kweyama board failed to put in place new security services to take over.
When the board was dissolved, Mbalula unlawfully appointed Bongisizwe Mpondo as administrator. Mpondo criticised the previous board for cancelling the irregular security contracts without a contingency plan – but when faced with the decision, he chose to do the same thing.
This meant that when the country went into lockdown in 2020, the railway infrastructure was left vulnerable to criminals who felt emboldened enough to pillage Prasa’s infrastructure in broad daylight.
A full assessment of how much damage has been done to Prasa’s railway assets is still underway, but in a review of his first 100 days in office, Matthews said a preliminary assessment of the cost of vandalism for Prasa is estimated to be just over R4-billion “over the years”.
In written responses to amaBhungane, Prasa said this R4-billion covers the period from when the security contracts were cancelled in 2019 until now.
In the meantime, commuters have either been left stranded or forced to use more expensive forms of transport due to Prasa suspending vast sections of its services.
Patching up the ‘agonising challenge’
Since the PR2P’s launch, Prasa officials have worked overtime to patch up the “agonising challenge” the project posed, according to internal emails seen by amaBhungane.
Problems included trying to find an appropriate department to place the project, and obtaining a workable appointment and deployment plan for volunteers.
The PR2P is potentially not compliant with the requirements of the Private Security Industry Regulatory Authority (Psira), which specifies the training and certification needed for people hired to perform a security function.
Prasa told amaBhungane it also needs to ensure that the campaign adheres to the Rail Safety Regulator’s (RSR’s) operating permit conditions.
Emails, internal documents and interviews conducted by amaBhungane with current and former employees reveal that the issues with the PR2P go beyond compliance challenges.
The planned size of the project has also ballooned from around 5,000 to just under 10,000 volunteers, working in two shifts.
Yet by April, only 742 volunteers were operational in three provinces.
Prasa told amaBhungane the company had decided to halt any further recruitment until it is able to resolve the risks which have been identified with the project.
The company said: “One of the risks identified is the potential non-compliance with the Psira prescripts governing the appointment of personnel performing a security function… we needed to ensure that we are not in breach of any regulatory prescript in engaging the volunteers.
“The other one has to do with adherence to the RSR operating permit conditions… especially as far as conditions stipulated for the security aspect are concerned.
“We have thus resolved to subject the programme to an internal audit exercise to ensure that all requirements are met before we can continue with the roll-out.”
AmaBhungane can reveal that the project’s national director, Portia Tsolekile, who has been involved since its inception and was overseeing implementation, has also been removed from her role after a number of complaints about how she was managing the job.
Tsolekile is a senior manager for research and had no prior responsibility for security at Prasa.
She failed to respond to requests for comment.
One senior security official who wanted to remain anonymous told amaBhungane, “[PR2P] is part of Prasa’s integrated security deployment to ensure that we can get the service back to par, but with all these funny things happening, we are now stuck.
“The sad reality is the people that are driving this thing are not even security people. There is too much involvement from the Prasa board with regard to the programme, which creates a perception that there is a vested interest,” said the official.
A new board drives the project
The PR2P concept was introduced in December 2020 by the newly appointed Prasa board led by Leonard Ramatlakane. Then acting chief executive Thandeka Mabija and the former head of security Tebogo Rakau were subsequently “tasked” to develop the final plan for implementation.
The goal of the project is to work hand-in-hand with local communities situated along railway lines in order to secure Prasa’s train infrastructure. The PR2P would act as a “force multiplier”, strengthening existing security interventions as Prasa works to restore services.
But insiders allege the PR2P was driven by Ramatlakane, who was previously MEC for Community Safety in the Western Cape. There, he ran a similar community stakeholder crime prevention project called the Bambanani strategy between 2003 and 2008, from which the PR2P borrows. Working in his office at the time, was Tsolekile.
Prasa told amaBhungane it was unaware that Ramatlakane previously ran a similar project. The development of the plan had “coincided with the end of the year closure, hence at the earliest return to the office the project was signed-off”.
Prasa anticipates that the audit process “will illuminate the salient issues around the project which were correct or lacking”.
Ramatlakane did not respond to questions about his role.
Mbalula, through his spokesperson, said the board had assured him the project was approved following proper procedure.
This “included recommendations from management, discussions and decisions from board committee level and a resolution of the board”.
“When the PR2P project was launched, the Minister indicated that the project will be implemented in phases. The project is currently on Phase 1, which entails recruitment of volunteers, the launch and public engagements.
“The Board has assured the Minister that the project remains on track…”
Who approved the budget?
Acting chief financial officer Lazarus Mkhabela, who would have approved the budget for the community watch programme, seems to have been sidestepped after he raised a number of concerns about the project.
His queries are enclosed in a draft implementation memo sent by Tsolekile to the former head of security, Rakau, at the end of December 2020.
Mkhabela was copied on the email, along with board chairperson Ramatlakane, then acting chief executive Mabija and the acting manager for corporate affairs, Bane Ndlovu.
One of Mkhabela’s questions was about the budget.
The memo had outlined a R203-million budget, but was silent on where the funding would come from.
“If it is part of the R902-million for security, may we have a detailed breakdown allocation of the R902-million to the various components of security measures/strategy, including the revised budget for contracted security and funds that were already spent,” Mkhabela asked.
This is the R902-million which National Treasury approved in October 2020 to fund Prasa’s integrated security plan to stem the loss of its infrastructure.
Part of this was already allocated to insourcing 3,100 professional security guards, which was already at an advanced stage by that December.
Mkhabela also questioned the funds allocated for training (R30,000), media and marketing (R1.9-million), sound equipment (R50,000) saying, “Based on past experience, the budget estimates do not appear reasonable.”
Another issue was the necessity of a R200,000 community engagement line item which involved paying performers, DJs and community leaders.
Despite questions raised by Mkhabela, when a round-robin document was sent to the board in January to approve the PR2P project implementation plan, the budget was almost identical to the estimation in the memo.
The only material change was the budget for the volunteer stipends, which was cut from an estimated R203-million to R177-millon after Prasa reduced the number of stations to be covered, from 556 to 493.
Unlike the memo, the round-robin document clearly stated that the funding would come from the corporate security department, though it did not answer Mkhabela’s questions about what aspects of the existing security budget would have to make way to accommodate the volunteer programme.
It appears the document was approved by the board on Sunday, 3 January, while Mkhabela was still on leave.
In June this year, Mkhabela received an email from Ramagoganye Ngakane, a senior manager in the office of the group chief executive, asking him to confirm if he had indeed approved the PR2P project.
He denied ever doing so.
“It’s not true that I ever approved the PR2P Project,” Mkhabela responded, attaching documents including the memo where he raised the above issues.
“It is important to note that I never received a response to my comments on the PR2P project. Accordingly, I would not have approved,” he said.
Six months earlier, on 3 January, Ramatlakane and Mabija were the first people to sign off, with the latter identified as the compiler of the proposal.
The question is: how did the board go ahead with approving the project without a nod from the office of the CFO?
Is Prasa secure?
In his December 2020 queries, Mkhabela also flagged the risk of volunteers demanding permanent work after 12 months of being paid a stipend; alternatively, the risk of a “sudden increase in theft and vandalism” when the PR2P came to an end.
He explained that in the period volunteers would be conducting security duties on Prasa’s railway infrastructure, they could “obtain key information on Prasa security strategies and location of our assets and operations” – which raised obvious risks.
At the same time, Mkhabela was asking difficult questions and the Prasa security department, which was supposed to “host” the programme, was also questioning its structure and implementation.
On at least two occasions, former head of security Rakau had to ask Tsolekile to amend the specific inclusion of the ANC’s Umkhonto weSizwe Military Veterans’ Association (MKMVA) as the only veterans recognised in the project structure.
According to the project plan, some 80 military veterans are to be deployed as full-time “coordinators” across 46 Prasa corridors.
In one email, where Ramatlakane and Mabija were also copied, Rakau explained that there are other formations recognised by the Department of Military Veterans, and if Prasa policy had a bias towards the MKMVA, this will “create difficulties moving forward”.
Rakau also asked for clarity regarding the statement that the military veterans will remain on Prasa’s salary scale, asking, “How long will they remain in employment?”
Rakau was one of three executives who were dismissed by Prasa in February, and later reinstated following an order from the labour court. He has since left the organisation and directed all questions to Prasa.
Insiders claim that although Prasa’s security division did not formally distance itself from the programme, the department’s reluctance to be involved was verbally communicated on several occasions.
This is supported by the fact that during the March troubleshooting period, the PR2P’s steering committee was still trying to find a host department for the project because security had raised a “a slew of challenges” about facing possible adverse findings from Psira, the security industry regulator.
According to an internal email, a suggestion was made to place the programme in the customer services department, though this did not happen.
Amabhungane understands that the security department did not want to take on the risk of having oversight over people who were not recognised by Psira.
While Prasa announced publicly that volunteers would receive Psira-accredited Grade C certificates, the programme that was approved by the board was not as clear.
According to the implementation plan, volunteers would be “trained to understand their task at hand, using the Security and Neighbourhood Watch Training Module”.
When amaBhungane first asked Prasa about what kind of training would be provided, the agency said the training curriculum would include “what their duties entail, the legislative tools to use, their responsibility as far as the programme is involved and what PR2P is about”.
Asked to clarify, Prasa said the volunteers training was two-phased. First they would be inducted by Prasa’s security services and then receive professional training to meet the Grade C requirements of Psira.
“The latter training will be funded separately through application for Seta grants/funds,” said Prasa. This detail was not in the implementation plan or any of the internal documents and presentations outlining the budget and funding of the PR2P training that amaBhungane has seen.
The internal audit process initiated by Prasa may also provide details indicating why the number of volunteers almost doubled from what was initially approved in the January round-robin.
At first Prasa wanted to deploy 4,930 volunteers for a stipend of R3,000 each a month.
The latest figures now show that 9,860 volunteers will each get R1,500 every two weeks, and Prasa confirmed they would work on a rotational basis with one week on and one week off.
But whether Prasa recruits 5,000 or 10,000 volunteers, what is clear from email correspondence with officials in the human capital department and those working on the project, is that Prasa did not have capacity or a coherent plan to manage the programme.
Towards the end of March, with merely a few hundred volunteers, Prasa’s recruitment and payroll department did not have the correct list of volunteers with their full details and documentation.
Around that time, the project’s head, Tsolekile, appears to have been removed.
Emails show that her relationship with her colleagues was strained, in particular with the acting general manager of corporate affairs, Bane Ndlovu.
Ahead of the 15 March Gauteng launch, Ndlovu questioned Tsolekile’s capacity to lead the project, describing her as “a huge RED FLAG”. A few days later, Tsolekile left the programme.
Prasa told amaBhungane that the decision to remove Tsolekile was made after it received “a plethora of complaints from community members alleging exclusion and sidelining”. DM