6 June 2018
Minister of Transport Blade Nzimande appointed a new Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (PRASA) interim board in April. Commuter activists, such as #UniteBehind, are hoping this signals an end to the grand-scale corruption that has plagued the state-owned enterprise responsible for the country’s passenger trains.
GroundUp interviewed the new chairperson Khanyisile Kweyama on Tuesday at Parliament, shortly after she had addressed the Transport Portfolio Committee. Also with her at the interview was Sipho Sithole, PRASA’s chief of strategy. Kweyama is a former Executive Director of Anglo American South Africa.
GroundUp: What is your assessment of the state of passenger rail in the Western Cape?
Kweyama: Look, it is in ICU. It is quite critical. But it’s not in the morgue. We are moving it out into the high-care ward, so that we know it is out of danger and moving more towards recovery. That is another commitment we made … that we need to take it out of ICU and into high care and hopefully into the normal ward after that.
GroundUp: How confident are you that the new board can turn PRASA around?
Kweyama: We have a bunch of professionals around the table who have a track record of delivering on the promises that we’ve made, and we will. But clearly there are short-term, medium-term, and long-term [goals]. We recognise that in a period of one year, you may start putting the elements into place and developing a short-term rollout programme, but you are not going to turn around PRASA 100% in one year; that’s usually a five-year plan. Starting with a short-term turnaround, achieving results in year two, then year four, then year five. But for our part, we definitely will deliver on the tasks that we set ourselves in this year.
GroundUp: You met civil society in May to discuss safety on Metrorail trains in the Western Cape. One of the interventions announced was the introduction of carriages for women and children only. What other undertakings have been made?
Kweyama: Our discussion was specifically around coaches for women and children. I said I will sponsor that type of project. In Women’s Month we will sign terms of reference that say this is how we are going to proceed to implement.
But we [also] went beyond coaches and talked about people leaving their homes to get to the station. There are safety issues around that and they involve more than PRASA. It also involves … the police to make sure people get to the coach.
[Kweyama said that “stakeholder engagements” are currently underway to come up with ways to improve the entire Metrorail service, with a particular focus on crime and vandalism.]
In August we will go public to say, “This is where we are. This is what we’ve agreed on. And this is how we will roll out.” We will put timeframes to it at that stage.
GroundUp: Is there a timeline on when PRASA’s new rolling stock will be in service nationally?
Sithole: There are currently 18 new train sets in service. [These train sets were manufactured in Brazil.] Our train manufacturing plant on the East Rand will, for the first time, produce two new train sets by December 2018. These will add to the existing 18 train sets.
[Sithole was unable to say when these new trains will be deployed nationally.]
GroundUp: The investigation by auditors into PRASA commissioned by Treasury found 185 irregular contracts. Has any action been taken against any of the people implicated in the report or in Thuli Madonsela’s Derailed report?
Kweyama: There are disciplinaries underway … Some executives are on suspension linked to one or more of the reports that have been issued. But as far as the Werksman’s [Attorneys] report, we are only receiving a full report on Thursday … We will go into implementation after that.
[The Werksman’s report (or reports) were not part of the PrasaLeaks documents that GroundUp published last year. We have not seen them. They deal with very large controversial contracts between PRASA and two companies: Swifambo and Siyangena.]
GroundUp: Moving forward, what will this board do to ensure fair and transparent tender processes?
Kweyama: Governance is important for this board. We recognise where the role of management starts and ends, and where the role of the board starts and ends. So you are not going to see board members sitting on management committees. You are not going to see board members directing tenders or projects. There are clear boundaries, very clear boundaries.
GroundUp: Do you support the appointment of Collins Letsoalo as a non-executive board member?
[Letsoalo was appointed by Nzimande last week, a move condemned by the United National Transport Union. Letsoalo was acting CEO of PRASA in February 2017 and is accused of having given himself a R4 million salary increase.]
Kweyama: The concern does exist and we are engaging with the minister in this regard. Having said that, the board is appointed by the minister, we don’t appoint ourselves, so we are also conscious of that boundary. He would have applied his mind to certain things … So we are not second-guessing him but we are raising the concerns.
[In its presentation to the Transport Portfolio Committee in Parliament on Tuesday the board noted that PRASA has been without a Group CEO since July 2015, a Group Chief Financial Officer since June 2016 and currently has no Chief Procurement Officer.]
GroundUp: Is the Legal Panel at PRASA operating unhindered?
[PRASA’s Legal Panel has attempted to stop some of the corruption at the organisation. However, six months ago the old board suspended its services.]
Kweyama: Well you know there is history of the Legal Panel having been cancelled in the past by previous boards … The suspension is still operational because it has not been revoked. So this board has to make a decision on a way forward. [Kweyama said she expected this decision to be made at the next board meeting in July.] But in terms of the legal component being able to do its work, they are definitely not being hindered by the board. We are not interfering in any way.
GroundUp: Will PRASA be engaging with unions in terms of overhauling the management plan? Is there a plan for union engagement on some of these issues?
Kweyama: There is a plan that the board has approved that at least the chairperson should engage with the president of some of the unions that have written to us. We don’t want to be the board that runs wage negotiations and does all those things … Unions are key stakeholders and we will engage with them on the relevant topics, especially when we are talking around restructuring the organisation or anything that affects people.
GroundUp: Do you have any final comments to the rail commuters of South Africa?
Kweyama: To the passenger, to the commuter out there, we are not pretending you don’t exist. We came here to show we are committed. We made [a presentation] to the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee to show that we are committed and we want passengers to have reliable, safe, secure transport.
[Kweyama then said the board had done a tour of the trains in Johannesburg to see the situation on the ground in the hope it would help them come up with practical solutions.]
We will hold management to account in terms of making sure the trains are running on time … But we also call upon commuters to do their bit in terms of paying for their tickets because the more they don’t pay the more it affects the revenue … Trains are an affordable mode of transport, and our people need that.
In PRASA’s 2016 presentation on its Modernisation Programme to the Transport Portfolio Committee, PRASA stated that the re-signalling of its rail network in the Western Cape was expected to be completed in December 2018, at a total estimated cost of R1.8 billion.
Re-signalling is intended to reduce the number of train delays and cancellations as well as reduce the risk of accidents caused by signalling failures.
In the board’s presentation to the Transport Portfolio Committee in Parliament on Tuesday it reported that the signalling programme is 72.45% complete in Cape Town, 67.15% complete in Gauteng and 66.33% complete in Kwa-Zulu Natal. How these very precise percentages are calculated is unclear.
There were no exact timelines for expected completion.