Opinionista Sikonathi Mantshantsha 13 August 2019

PRASA – a shining manual of how to destroy a key asset

Our train service was once reliable and enabled many South Africans to earn a living. Now, If you are looking for a perfect example of how to destroy a strategic national asset, look no further than the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa).

This railway operator was once the most reliable and cheapest form of daily transportation for millions of commuters who needed to get to work. School children who had no affordable alternative form of transport, including this writer, were once entirely dependent on Prasa’s suburban trains, now branded MetroRail, to get them to the classroom on time. Back then, it cost R1.50 for the train to town. Today the cheapest single ticket is R7.50.

Hailing down a minibus taxi, by comparison, will cost you at least R12 for the shortest distance. For millions of poor commuters the train was always the only transport available. But cadre deployment, corruption and incompetence has robbed the poor of this last asset available to them. “Metrofail” has replaced Metrorail in the experience of the most vulnerable commuters. Only the corrupt and the deployed but clueless cadres are smiling all the way to the bank.

This month, when it reports its financial results for the year ended March, Prasa will admit that its on-time performance has dropped to just 41%. Yes, trains only work as planned for 41% of the time. Try and run a business that needs the patronage of customers like that and see how long it lasts. Whereas in the financial year ending 2014 Metrorail carried 543-million paying passenger trips, this had dropped to just 269-million passenger paying trips four years later. This resulted in satisfaction for only 52% of passengers. Need I remind anyone that these are the working class, “the poorest of the poor” who have no alternative and that government always claims to represent? More on this later.

For now, in this instalment of the Prasa files, let me reminisce about the good old days when the train was the only affordable form of transport but still left the commuter with some dignity.

So reliable was Metrorail it even gave itself the apt payoff line: “We’ll Get You There, Noma Kanjani.” Not anymore. Those days are long gone. Today’s Metrorail cannot be relied upon to timeously deliver its human cargo to their destination. In the 1990s, school pupils from the outlying townships of Duduza near Nigel, Daveyton near Benoni, and KwaThema in the far east, and those from the south-western townships of Mohlakeng in Randfontein, Westonaria and the furthest suburbs of Soweto, could rely entirely on Metrorail for the most affordable means to get them to class in the leafy suburbs of Johannesburg.

Though the daily commute could be tortuously long, particularly when compared to road transport, for a long time the utility kept its end of the bargain and always deposited its human cargo at its intended destination as planned. Even when we’d started out in the workplace, or at tertiary institutions, there was no other form of transport to beat Metrorail in terms of cost. Nothing could beat the total monthly fare of R62 when I last travelled by train. And safety. There is still nothing to beat the current R252 total monthly fare for the longest train commute.

Many friendships were made by the regular commuters who would start out as complete strangers sitting across from one another in the coaches. On some weekends my mother would bring home some of the friends she had met on the train, which was turned into another terrain of the struggle during the tumultuous 1990s. She still has fond memories of her fellow passengers and the many conversations they had during the two-hour commute over the 42km journey between Daveyton and Johannesburg’s Park Station.

Some long-lost lovers from back home would also hook up and find some space in the train to rekindle their love, away from the prying eyes of their jealous live-in lovers.

When I was completing my high school studies in Johannesburg, and later when I had been lucky enough to get a menial job at a stockbroker in the CBD, anything other than the train was off limits. I later led many of my mother’s commuter friends as chairman in our stokvel, in which we could all trust one another with tens of thousands of rand.

The gospel preacher from the Shembe church, a native of Nquthu in KwaZulu-Natal, was one of the highlights of my ride to work. As was the night duty security guard who would always promptly fall asleep as soon as he found a seat on our regular coach. But he never seemed to miss out on any of the conversations.

The reliable train service enabled many people to earn a living. Honest and otherwise. The blind beggar who would always boast that ke kene ke kene! (meaning “I have made it, deal with it!”) as soon as he’d successfully changed coaches at the next station always seemed to make a lot of money. The many hawkers who sold everything from fruit snacks to camphor cream (to warm the frozen winter hands), established relationships and extended lines of credit to commuters, certain they would be on the train to settle their debts at month end.

On weekends some men from the Jeppe and George Goch hostels would make a lot of money from naive housewives on the way to do their shopping in town, when they would induce them to play a game of three cards. The first round, where you had to point out the correct card, was always easy to win. Until the shuffler and his hangers-on would see you had some money. A reliable train service created a community all of its own. Used to. Which brings us to the current atrocious services.

Metrorail has reduced today’s train commuter to angry vandals and anarchists, who vent their frustration at its sloppy “service” by setting fire to the perennially late trains. In the year ended March 2018, Prasa interim chairman Khanyisile Kweyama admitted that the company’s commuter service performance had dropped to an all time low. “Commuter services are at its lowest performance levels of all time. On-time train performance is currently at 68.3% of trains operated and 13% of trains scheduled are cancelled with the average delay of over 30 minutes being experienced by commuters,” she wrote in the 2018 annual report.

If you thought that was bad, how about this: the current minister of transport, Fikile Mbalula, wrote to Kweyama late in July to lament the atrocious fact that Prasa had only achieved 31% of its own performance targets in the fourth quarter of financial 2019. That’s the year ended March, whose financial results will be published in about two weeks. In the letter (oddly also sent to Kweyama’s Gmail address) , Mbalula said even this 31% achievement was on “softer target performance matters” that have no impact on the mandated service of the utility. Mbalula goes on to express much concern about the “slow pace of capital spending, inadequate procurement processes (which resulted in poor management on projects), lack of revenue collection, high fare evasion, irregular, fruitless and wasteful expenditure…” among other things.

Another report seen by Daily Maverick shows the situation is getting more dire. Passengers who could ill afford other means of getting to their menial jobs have been forced to abandon the train service in large numbers. In the first quarter of this new financial year, the three months to June, Metrorail only conducted 40.7-million paying passenger trips. The target for the quarter was 59.9-million paying passenger trips.

Of course, Mbalula is correct to complain about irregular, wasteful and fruitless expenditure. These will still balloon further.

This week Daily Maverick exposed a brazen attempt by politically connected members of the board and chief executive officer Nkosinathi Sishi to extract hundreds of millions of fees from the same poor commuters. This will be done by outsourcing key infrastructure projects and some services to the Development Bank of Southern Africa (DBSA), which denies any knowledge of the scheme, for a hefty fee of R421-million. Over three years, the contract will hand over about R5-billion in revenue to DBSA, to develop and improve infrastructure that has already been contracted to other consultants. No tender or any other good governance approval processes were pursued to burden the poor commuters with this duplicatory cost.

In a poor attempt to explain away the problem, Prasa drafted a statement attributed to the board, denying any wrongdoing on the DBSA matter. Tellingly the statement, riddled with spelling errors, fails to quote any single person on the board. Nobody at Prasa has been brave enough to even send it out to the media, let alone attempt to factually answer the 16 questions Daily Maverick asked on 6 August. Instead, this poor attempt at deflection has been leaked out in dribs and drabs to selected media while the company’s executives have gone to ground.

Perhaps going to ground was the correct strategy to deal with nosey journalists in the past, in the hope the questions would disappear. Not so today. DM

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