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South Africa's Commuters Derailed By Corruption

A staggering number of Prasa contracts are rotten and the system is on the brink of paralysis. What does this mean for 700,000 people who rely on the trains?

Ferial Haffajee, Noxolo Mafu, Queenin Masuabi and Nkosinathi Shazi
Jul 13, 2017

Over 700,000 South Africans rely on a train to get them to work everyday, yet their journeys are often derailed by late trains. Trains are not safe and dreams are deferred by journeys that go off track.

The pain of the passengers is not caused by a shortage of money. South Africa spends almost R100-billion a year on transport with a significant chunk going to subsidise train travel. But the Passenger Rail Agency of SA (Prasa) is paralysed by corruption.

Former Public Protector Thuli Madonsela, in her report on Prasa called "Derailed" found that billions of rands worth of contracts were suspicious and should be investigated by the Treasury.

The Treasury undertook the investigations and found that only 13 of 219 contracts it ordered forensic investigations into, were sound and above board. They only probed contracts above a value of R10-million. The rest were rotten, reported the Daily Maverick's Scorpio, as a perusal of the outcomes of 12 different investigations show. While the reporting of corruption headlines the big numbers, what does it mean to ordinary people?

Prasa* procured the wrong trains so a shortage has meant trains are often overcrowded because we don't have enough of them.

Last month, the Johannesburg High Court said the purchase of trains worth R2.6-billion for Prasa by a company called Swifambo should be cancelled. Passenger satisfaction levels are at an all-time low of 40 percent, according to an internal Prasa document written to turn around the rail agency.

This week HuffPost SA went out riding trains to see how corruption impacts the commuter. We found a stampede of discontent...

It's not surprising from experiences like these to learn that fewer and fewer people are using the trains. In a hard-hitting document marked confidential and called a "Prasa Turnaround Strategy" dated 2016, the organisation lays bare its problems in stark numbers. We add the cost of corruption:

  • 1,827 coaches or 40 percent of the fleet was not in service --
    The price of corruption: contracts to buy new trains are mired in corruption
  • 375 coaches were vandalized in the first six months of the 2016/1017 financial year -- The price of corruption: signalling contracts were among those found to be irregular or corruptly awarded. Signalling problems often lead to accidents
  • An increase of accidents and train fires: there have been four major accidents between 2015 and 2017 -- The price of corruption: the international Track Quality Index found there was increasing deterioration of tracks across the country

South Africa has not changed its spatial apartheid -- black people live far away from their workplaces and spend an average 74 minutes on a train commute.

Congestion on our roads makes these trips even longer, yet many train passengers are making an exodus from trains because they are unreliable and often unsafe. Prasa's own research shows it lost a quarter of paid trips between 2016 and 2017. The agency has a budget deficit that reaches into at least R1-billion.

Take a look here at how passengers are leaving and how performance has gone down. Corruption and mismanagement are killing PRASA.

The story of corruption in South Africa is often told in big headlines and big shocking numbers. But what about the small stories when the impact is felt on the ground? Here are some of those stories in letters written to Prasa and to former Transport Minister Edna Molewa from frustrated, hurt and angry passengers.

Studies of Prasa have shown that it is bloated and top-heavy. It spends 53 percent of its subsidy on staff and a minority on commuters. The internal Prasa document says the company "is over-staffed in general and understaffed in critical areas like technical grades at depots... and in critical train operations such as train drivers. An abusive culture and terrible treatment of employees on the one hand, and a lackadaisical attitude towards work by many employees on the other hand, have permeated Prasa for years".

The investigations revealed long lags between tenders being published, closed and granted. This lackadaisical attitude hampers service to commuters.

Automation at Metrorail, the commuter passenger arm of Prasa, is almost non-existent so the service is not modern or efficient. And often facilities are poor.

Paging through the investigations into over 200 contracts granted by Prasa is like reading a nightmare of mismanagement. Investigators from all the companies contracted by the Treasury to track how billions had been badly spent or stolen were stymied. Nearly all their investigations record that they were unable to continue or complete because Prasa did not provide the documents they needed.

In one instance, a company classified as being in "agriculture, hunting, forestry and fishing" won a R22-million contract for unspecified repairs. Another contract worth over R10-million was won because the company was female owned, yet the investigators could only find a single male owner.

Time and time again, the investigators found that former CEO Lucky Montana had deviated from procurement procedures to grant contracts himself -- a point noted many times through the various investigations. Another investigation notes that there were "no supporting documents for payments totaling R54 million...".

The losses at Prasa mounted to the R19-billion eventually tallied by Madonsela.

Prasa board chairperson Popo Molefe has lambasted the Hawks, which have failed to investigate although all the investigations recommend immediate action against existing and former executives. Molefe and his board are likely to be axed by Transport Minister Joe Maswanganyi.

As the big chiefs fight, the commuters continue to suffer.

*An earlier version of this article stated Transnet had procured the wrong trains when, in fact, these were procured by Prasa.


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