KZN commuters deal with skyrocketing travel costs, unemployment as Prasa network lies in ruins
The grand looting, thieving and vandalisation of South Africa’s vital rail network has been well-documented, but the least told story is how those poor families, school children, blue-collar workers and unemployed who relied on these trains — by far the cheapest form of transport — are coping with the impact of these disruptions.
People in KwaDukuza (formerly known as Stanger) used to pay R150 to buy a monthly ticket that allowed them to commute to Durban city.
Now they have to fork out R140 for a round trip to Durban after the train service linking the two places came to an abrupt end more than two years ago.
Fezeka Mvuyane, of Groutville — about 75 km from Durban and only 5km from KwaDukuza (Stanger) — said she commuted between her home and the Durban city-based educational institution where she was studying early childhood development.
“I had to have R120 each day to take a taxi. I had to quit my studies because there was no way I could afford taxis daily,” she said. She is not the only one as there are many people, including students, pupils and low-earners such as domestic workers who were forced to quit working or schooling when the train services stopped.
The near-total collapse of South Africa’s rail network intensified in late 2019 when the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) decided to cancel all private security contracts. By the time of the Covid-19 pandemic, the rail network was vulnerable and unprotected when criminals and looters moved in, stripping away copper and electric cables, doors, windows, and rooves at train stations.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Sucking the marrow from the bones: Criminals return to finish off Gauteng railway stations
Government believes that the looting and stripping of rail infrastructure were committed at the instigation of owners of security companies that had been contracted to secure the rail network but whose contract was summarily ended after the Auditor General had found that these contracts had been awarded irregularly.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Off the rails: Prasa bungles multimillion-rand plan to hire thousands of volunteers as ‘guards’
South Africa has a network of over 30,000km (18,600 miles) of track, making it the most advanced railway system on the African continent. But this network is now a shadow of its former self as it has been stripped and vandalised and its parts stolen by criminals looking to make money from scrap metal.
Transport experts say that South Africa’s railway network is in a state of decline as demonstrated by the decrease in freight transported by train over the past five years.
Prasa and Transnet Freight Rail (TFR) are the state-owned rail companies under siege from brazen railway strippers.
In December last year, both Prasa and TFR welcomed the six-month ban on the trade of scrap metal as government was attempting to limit damage to rail and other state infrastructure.
According to Stats SA’s land transport surveys, SA’s rail network carried nearly 230 million tons of freight in 2017 and only 179 million in 2021 — the lowest volume recorded over the past decade. Most of this, according to the survey, was due to the looting of rail infrastructure.
The Sunday Times reported recently how Transnet’s failing infrastructure is choking the movement of goods and how this is threatening thousands of jobs in the mining industry, which depends on exports for its survival and sustenance.
The report quoted the Minerals Council of South Africa stating that last year the mining industry lost out on exports worth R50-billion because of TFR’s inefficiency. In 2021 it was R35-billion.
Some of the looting of infrastructure was brazen, taking place in broad daylight, with criminally-intent strippers and vandals not scared of the passers-by or the law enforcement officers.
Trains and stations offline
By its own admission, Prasa says about 80% of its trains have been vandalised. Damage caused by the April 2022 floods further crumbled or eroded the infrastructure.
A 2021 report by Brenthurst Foundation, a Johannesburg-based think-tank, stated that about two-thirds of the overhead cables that covered more than 3,000km of track had been stolen. It estimated that it would cost the state about R500,000 per kilometre to restore.
Of the 590 rail stations only 134 stations were functioning as 323 stations had been “vandalised”. Prasa’s 2021/22 annual report states that “of 40 lines only 18 are operational, and only offer limited services, while more than 1,100km of signalling cable and 40km of rail tracks have been either stolen or damaged.”
In some parts of the Western Cape and Gauteng, railway lines routes were not only stripped and vandalised, but also some homeless people have moved into the rail network line and built shacks and other forms of informal housing.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Informal settlements on Metrorail tracks still hinder progress on Cape Town’s Central Line
One of these routes is the busy Philipi-Nyanga route, where approximately 800 shacks were built on the railway tracks.
Here, agreement was reached by all stakeholders that railway squatters would be relocated to an alternative place or places under a programme known as Operation Bhekela.
But haggling between the National Department of Transport and the Western Cape provincial Department of Human Settlements over the latter’s refusal to spend the R111-million allocated by the Treasury to assist with the relocations of those squatting in the railway line has delayed the process of rehabilitation of this route.
This was revealed and ventilated in May 2023 — three weeks ago — when Prasa executives were summoned before the National Assembly’s transport committee to account for its role in restoring the rail transport network.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Stripped bare: Looting till there is nothing left of Gauteng’s rail network
Prasa executives told MPs that at its peak in the 1990s and early 2000s, it was running between 40 and 44 corridors of lines across the country. Currently, there are 18 to 19 corridors.
Until this grand looting took place, KZN had a number of deteriorating but still operating rail networks linking the port city of Durban to various outlying areas on the north and south. The westward rail network linked goods and people from Durban to the economic powerhouse of Johannesburg, about 568 km away.
The South Coast Line, which operates along the Indian Ocean coastline from Kelso through Scottburgh, Umkomaas, Amanzimtoti and Isipingo to central Durban was stopped during Covid-19 but was further damaged during the April 2022 floods. Now the South Coast line operates from Durban to Winkelspruit with fewer trains during the peak hours and there are no trains during the day.
Three main lines have been forced to discontinue. These are the Old Main Line, which operates from Pinetown through Queensburgh to central Durban, the Bluff Line, which runs from Wests station, along the Bluff to three different destinations in central Durban and Umlazi, and the Chatsworth Line operates from Chatsworth to central Durban.
Most of KZN train services were affected in one way or another by the Prasa upheavals, the floods or the illegal stripping and vandalisation of the rail network.
Now, anyone from blue-collar workers, sick patients, schoolchildren, domestic workers and job-seekers are bearing the brunt, struggling to get by as the only alternative transport — the taxis — are very expensive and beyond the means of everyday people.
Transport costs crippling workers
Until the advent of Covid-19, Siyabonga Biyela — a 44-year-old father of three who works at Umhlali Upholsterers — travelled by train from his home in Shakaville, in KwaDukuza, to his workplace in Umhlali, about 27km away.
A weekly train ticket used to cost him R47 but now he has to part with R80 daily for a round trip with a minibus taxi.
The trains that travelled from Durban and KwaDukuza (Stanger) were stopped before the Covid-19 pandemic and since then the overhead cables, train stations and most of the infrastructure have been stripped and/or destroyed.
Biyela said he’d seen many fellow commuters who had to quit work because they couldn’t afford expensive taxi fares.
“I have a family here in Shakaville and another family back home in Empangeni. I am compelled to send money home. The times were and are still tough…….I could not afford the transport to work myself. I was considering to quit work. But my boss came on board and subsidised my transport fares,” Biyela said.
His boss, Jason Galloti, said he has to pay between R5,500 and R7,000 to subsidise his seven workers to get to work.
“All the businesses around here are affected. The taxis are very expensive. …….It is terrible. We have been operating for 16 years and our staff has been using trains to come to work or go home. Now half of their wages goes towards transport. Every week I have to give them R150 to cover some of their transport cost. It’s either I do that or my staff will not come to work,” he said. This amount to about two days’ fare.
The Durban to KwaDukuza is not the only train route that had been forced to close down completely. The Durban to Cato Ridge now only has four trains in the morning and four trains in the afternoon. This line and the Umlazi to KwaMashu — which was also forced to operate on a small scale — are the two busiest lines in KZN. Other routes that had closed down completely are Durban to Pinetown, Durban to Chatsworth, Umlazi to West and others.
Amahle Madikizela is a 36-year-old domestic worker from Ilfracombe, on the lower South Coast. She works at Scottburgh, about 15 km away, and she used to pay R150 a month to buy a train ticket. Now she has to head to the main highway to hike for transport, a very risky and costly business. She said she now has to pay up to R800 for transport.
“The trains were safe. Now we have to risk our lives walking alone on the freeway. Even when you are going to the hospital, you have to go to the freeway to ask for lifts. The trains were so vital to our lives ……..now they are gone. Government officials must bring back our trains,” she said.
Dumisani Magwaza works at the carwash in Scottburgh but lives in Umgababa, about 31km away. He used to use the train to travel to and from work but now things are tough. In the past two-and-half years, Magwaza has been mugged twice by highway criminals.
“It was the same modus operandi, you get a lift and once inside the vehicle people pull out guns and demand that you give them everything from your phones, wallets, everything. In the latest incident, the lady with whom we got lift was forced to transfer some money to these criminals using EFT. They then dumped us in a bushy place and ordered us to lie down,” he said.
Mpho Mahaseli, a Matric pupil at Shallcross Secondary School, travels from his home in Dasenhoek to his school using a train. He is one of thousands of schoolchildren who use trains to access better-resourced schools in the suburbs.
“My parents enrolled me because the train is cheap and easily accessible. Now, we often come to school late and sometimes we don’t go to school at all, especially when there is a fault or trouble along the railway line,” he said, adding that many fellow pupils have had to drop out of school since their parents were working as domestic workers and cannot afford to pay the taxi fares.
Local economy impact
The trains also provided a platform for traders who sold their wares to commuters in overcrowded trains. There were many station and on-train traders, who had plied their trade for decades, feeding their families and sending their children to school and univerisities, who are now left penniless due to the dysfunctionality of the trains.
Sbonelo Mncwabe, a 24-year-old from Cato Ridge, said he took over from his elderly father the selling of fruits, juices and other consumables to commuters.
“I was selling and everything was going well. But after the Covid-19 epidemic, the trains stopped and after they didn’t come back. I was forced to spend the money to buy stock. Now I’m left penniless, jobless and with very little hope. It is very sad what has happened to us because when trains were running regularly, we had something to put on the table,” Mncwabe said.
A 45-year-old woman from Umgababa, south of Durban, said she used her severance package money to build rooms for rent. Now half of these rooms have been empty since the Durban-South Coast train was cancelled. Now a few trains go from Durban to Amanzimtoti or Winkelspruit.
“My former tenants had to find alternative accommodation. Most of them worked in Durban and they were able to get to work with trains. After the trains were gone, it became too costly for them to take taxis from here. So they packed and left, to live closer to their workplace,” she said in despondency.
She joined a chorus of people pleading for the government to bring back the full service of the trains.
In June 2020 Prasa announced a R7.5-billion five-year contract to do heavy maintenance and repairs of the rail fleet and clear the backlog. The contract was awarded to five contractors nationally and Prasa said it hoped that this contract would restore the infrastructure to its former glory and help restore the normal functioning of the rail network.
The Prasa statement said: “The economic benefit of this R7.5-billion contract cannot be understated as this has breathed new life into an industry that was almost left decimated. This contract has the potential to revive and ignite our economy as over 2,000 direct jobs are expected to be created. This is a true testament that we at Prasa, move beyond our primary mandate of transportation.
“This milestone has given our ageing fleet a new lease of life and set to increase productivity, boost confidence and staff morale within our organisation. This also gives Prasa an opportunity to innovate as we expedite the deployment of the new electrical trains,” Prasa said.
Zama Nomnganga, KZN spokesman of Prasa, told Daily Maverick that his organisation is doing its best to bring rail services to its pre-Covid levels.
“During lockdown, there was reduction of service due to country closure because of Covid 19. Thieves saw an opportunity to steal, destroy and vandalise our infrastructure. While we were in the process of recovering, floods then occured and that had a serious impact on the infrastructure as a whole.
“We are now busy with rehabilitation process and contracts have been appointed to begin works on the Chatsworth/Crossmoor line. Commencement of works is delayed due to illegal dumping and encroachment on the railway line. Prasa together with Ethekwini Municipality are in talks to remove the structure which interfere with the Railway. The City has committed itself to educate communities on how to manage dumping,” Nomnganga said. DM
A list of four dodgy Prasa tenders
The current state of Prasa and rail network did not happen overnight. The gradual deterioration of our rail network happened at a time when Prasa was issuing tenders worth billions to try and reverse its declining infrastructure and deteriorating assets.
Tabling his State Capture report, Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, said the capture of Prasa was so deep and severe that it would require a special commission of inquiry to unveil all the dirty tenders awarded over a number of years.
President Cyril Ramaphosa said his government would allow investigations to be carried out by the Hawks and other investigative agencies before deciding whether to appoint a special inquiry.
Here are some of these dodgy tenders:
1. ‘Too tall trains’ multi-billion tender
Swifambo Rail Leasing, a company that won a R3.5 billion locomotives tender from Prasa in 2013. The tender happened at the time when the controversial Lucky Montana was still the CEO of Prasa.
The Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture heard that Swifambo director, Auswell Mashaba, admitted he paid R80-million to the ANC after his company was awarded a R3.5-billion contract by Prasa to deliver locomotives.
Some of the trains, which were manufactured in Spain, were “too tall” for the South African rail network. The tender was later set aside by the Gauteng high court as corrupt and unlawful.
The summary of the judgement reads: “An award of a tender vitiated by irregularities, corruption and ‘fronting’ within the meaning of the Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment Act 53 of 2003 set aside.”
The ruling was confirmed by the Supreme Court of Appeal.
Initially, Prasa suspended 33 of its officials for their role in the awarding of this tender.
2. The dubious R4-billion security systems tender
In October 2020 the Gauteng high court in Pretoria set aside the controversial R4.5-illion contract between Prasa and electronic security systems company, Siyangena Technologies.
In 2011, Siyangena Technologies won a contract to install an integrated security system at the passenger rail agency’s stations, including providing security cameras and access gates. The initial budget for the contract was R517-million but it later ballooned to R4.5-billion after being extended in July and September 2014.
Prasa asked the Gauteng high court to declare two contracts awarded to a security company invalid two months after asking for the cancellation of an agreement to supply locomotives. In its court papers, Prasa had stated that it wants two contracts awarded to Siyangena Technologies worth about R4-billion ($250 million) declared invalid because the company was given an advantage through “bid-rigging” and the contracts were coupled with alleged “corrupt activities”. This was according to an affidavit by chairman Popo Molefe, which was filed with a motion on 2 February at the high court in Pretoria. The court ruled in Prasa’s favour and set the two contracts invalid.
3. The Fence and Gate tender
In 2013, Prasa entered into a contract worth R209-million with SA Fence and Gate for the installation of fences and other security measures at train depots across the country.
But SA Fence and Gate failed to deliver on some aspects of the contract and Prasa took the matter to arbitration process.
In February 2021, Advocate Lindi Nkosi-Thomas, who was acting as an arbitrator in a long-standing dispute between the two companies, ruled that SA Fence and Gate should pay R45.1 million back to Prasa after it failed to supply and install lighting for that amount.
Read more in Daily Maverick: R45-million victory for Prasa in SA Fence and Gate saga
4. The R7.6-billion tender to rehabilitate and upgrade stock
A few years ago Prasa embarked on a programme to rehabilitate its assets along the railway lines and even its trains.
The general overhaul tender to refurbish and repair Prasa’s old and wrecked trains was a critical element of the state-owned entity’s modernisation programme to transform commuter-rail infrastructure, through new electric trains, signalling technology, depot and station upgrades.
amaBhungane reported the first tender to fill this vital gap was issued in 2019 but then cancelled without being awarded. It was readvertised in 2020 and finally awarded in June 2022.
The R7.5-billion tender went to “five contractors nationally”, Prasa announced. The companies — CTE Technologies, YNF Engineering, TMH Africa, Armature Technology and Karabo-Nhlamolo Projects Cooperative (KNPC) — would collectively be tasked with repairing and refurbishing up to 400 metro and long-distance coaches each year.
According to the amaBhungane report, some of these companies had no capacity, facilities or finances.
Critics point to this tender as a sign that the capture of Prasa is continuing unabated. DM