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Opinionista

Prasa needs as much direction as its CEO

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At the end of the media briefing at its head office on Friday, Prasa chief executive Nkosinathi Sishi could not find his way out of a boardroom in the eastern wing of the building to the lift. If ever there was uncertainty that the agency was in trouble, the numbers and ‘leadership’ clear up all doubt.

The interim chief executive officer of South Africa’s only passenger train operator was fashionably late for the media briefing that he had jointly called two days previously with the chairman. He had allegedly missed his flight from Durban, so Nkosinathi Sishi could not get to the Friday afternoon media briefing on time.

No problem though, interim chairman Khanyisile Kweyama was holding the fort at the organisation’s Pretoria head office, and updating the four journalists present about the latest operational projects the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) had embarked on. Kweyama gave an update on the train utility’s efforts to stay on track, including an update on the so-called War Room and the four executive appointments the embattled utility had just made.

Sitting next to Kweyama, and fresh from his own suspension, was Sipho Sithole, chief strategy officer for corporate affairs, marketing and communications, the only executive committee member and senior Prasa employee to show up for the briefing to “address pertinent issues within” the organisation. None of the other 14 executive committee members, the people who head Prasa’s business units, could be seen. No explanation was offered for their absence.

Kweyama said the train operator had recently conducted interviews to fill the many vacancies in its executive committee. A new chief executive has been appointed at the rail division, the biggest unit of Prasa, which runs the urban passenger train service Metrorail.

Also appointed were group chief risk officer, company secretary and group head of security. Their names would be announced once they had given notice of resignation to their current employers, said Kweyama. Appointments still to be made include group chief financial officer and human resources officer. “Stability is first and foremost of our responsibilities,” said Kweyama.

So much for stability. Prasa’s executive committee should comprise 15 people at full capacity, yet the only executive Kweyama could find to accompany her to the media briefing, Sithole, had just returned from a disciplinary action, having been told to stay home in May 2019. He was charged with improper, irregular, corrupt, fruitless and wasteful expenditure following investigations. Late June, Sithole was found guilty of flouting the organisation’s supply chain management process. He was reinstated on 26 June and given a final written warning valid for 12 months.

Asked how many executives were either on suspension or special leave, Kweyama and Sithole had to consult and scratch out some of the names and positions of the people and their whereabouts before they could answer the question. Eleven executives were acting in their posts; the incumbents had either been suspended, placed on special leave, or fired during the past year.

The last out of the revolving door was Dries van der Walt, a veteran of 29 years at the railway operator and acting chief executive of the rail division, who resigned and left at the end of July. These are heads of business units or other critical areas of operations, including the chief financial officer, group legal and risk officer and head of security.

Sishi, the current interim chief executive, was brought in from the board to act in the position. He is the seventh interim chief executive since 2014. He replaced another interim chief executive, Sibusiso Sithole, who resigned end-February after only nine months in the role.

Only four of the active executives head their units in permanent appointments. Employees point at Kweyama’s board as the main source of the instability. People who spoke to Daily Maverick on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, point at the high turnover at the executive floor and say key members of the board benefit from the instability as they get to run the company themselves.

In that capacity, with no supervision, say the employees, the board members and Sishi get to divide up contracts to their favoured contractors. In August 2019 Daily Maverick exposed an attempt by Sishi to outsource about R5-billion worth of infrastructure investments and improvement to the Development Bank of Southern Africa (DBSA) without following any procurement processes. Furthermore, the firm’s own legal department shot down the proposed procurement as illegal and irregular.

Both Sishi and Kweyama vehemently deny the allegations, saying they have done nothing irregular. When asked who in the executive committee had participated in the DBSA project, and the dates of such meetings, Sishi could not name a single individual nor any of the meeting dates. Kweyama said the board and its capital investment committee had considered the transaction in “various meetings”, but could not give dates.

On the day Daily Maverick sent Prasa questions about the proposed DBSA deal, including whether the transport minister and national treasury had approved the outsourcing of Prasa’s main functions, Prasa sent a letter to Transport minister Fikile Mbalula requesting approval for the transaction. Answers are still outstanding.

Kweyama came under fire on a separate matter at the weekend. BusinessLive reported on Sunday that the Special Investigating Unit has issued an investigation report implicating a board member of the South African Broadcasting Corporation, then chaired by Kweyama, in procurement irregularities amounting to R185-million.

Back to Prasa, where the instability is not limited to the executives.

Prasa has not had a properly constituted board of directors since May 2017, when Popo Molefe was chairman of a board that had spearheaded investigations into massive corruption, including Swifambo Rail’s R3.5-billion procurement of faulty Spanish trains, among others. After the expiry of its three-year term, then transport minister Blade Nzimande inexplicably appointed an interim board that soon collapsed under the weight of new allegations of its own imprudence.

The current board, chaired by Kweyama, has been in place in an interim capacity since April 2018. The minister of transport appoints the parastatal’s board, and the government gives the utility annual subsidies amounting to billions. In addition to paying passenger revenue of R2.5-billion, in 2019 Prasa received R5.8-billion in operational subsidies, up from the previous year’s R5.2-billion.

Yet its operational shortcomings and alleged corruption resulted in a total loss of R934-million in 2018, slightly lower than the previous year.

Back at Friday’s media briefing: an hour into proceedings, Sishi waltzed into the room on the third floor of Prasa House and took his seat next to the chairman.

Kweyama had already told the media about the operational strides the organisation had made to resuscitate its dying operations: Two days previously Prasa had just launched the War Room, whose intended benefits would be “a single point at which all operational and the organisational challenges are to be dealt with, with a collective of experts and technicians located in all our regions at the same time digitally connected to be able to take decisions that immediately get implemented”. That mouthful of a term, which Sishi had earlier admitted in an interview on Talk Radio 702 would be a WhatsApp group, had already delivered some tangible benefits on the first day it operated.

Sishi joined the briefing and told the media about progress that had been made to ensure Prasa would improve its vastly collapsed services (Sishi’s words): trains not arriving or leaving as scheduled for more than 60% of the time, trains involved in collisions with other passenger trains, and angry consumers resorting to setting the trains on fire to express their dissatisfaction over shoddy services.

In terms of ensuring that trains are on time, we have to improve the maintenance environment, that is what has collapsed over the last few years because contracts that were signed between the organisation and service providers have been declared irregular. We have to make sure we regularise the environment,” said Sishi.

Public Protector Thuli Madonsela had found Prasa to have entered into numerous irregular (some outright illegal) contracts, in the years Lucky Montana was chief executive, as well as after his departure in 2015.

In addition, the utility’s services have all but collapsed. Its internal management reports state as much. In July, transport minister Fikile Mbalula lambasted the company for poor performance, saying he had learnt in its quarterly report that Prasa had met only 31% of its performance targets in the last quarter of the financial year ended June.

Prasa’s own internal management reports show services are far from stable. In the first quarter to June, only half the scheduled trains (50.2%) departed or arrived on time. Most delays, at 53%, are attributed to signalling faults, while rolling stock availability also plays a major role in causing delays at stations, according to the management report seen by this former train commuter.

As a result, commuters have walked. Of the targeted 59.9 million customers for the period, only 40.7 million showed up to ride in its Metrorail trains. Some of those on trains in this period were victims of robbery.

A total of 997 asset-related and 143 passenger-related incidents were recorded for the first quarter of financial 2020,” said Prasa. “Robbery accounted for the majority of passenger-related incidents, followed by assault with intent to cause grievous bodily harm.”

Whereas Prasa was banking on collecting R261.5-million in revenue from these paying commuters, it has collected just under R171-million. Hardly surprising, as Prasa’s management has been operating at less than a third of capacity for some time.

To cap it all, at the end of the Friday media briefing, Sishi could not find his way out of a boardroom in the eastern wing of the building, where the capital expenditure boss sits, to the lift. Sishi works on the same floor.

A staff member had to stop him going in the wrong direction and escort him, and this reporter, to the elevator of the three-storey building. Once in the elevator, Sishi asked to be taken to the War Room on the fifth floor. The staffer pointed out that Prasa House has only three floors, and the War Room was some 70km away in Johannesburg. Sishi took over as chief executive officer in March. DM

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