With theft and vandalism, PRASA still not on track
…..article dated 10 October 2021…..
Despite some good intentions and a new board and management, a read between the lines of the PRASA 2021 annual parliamentary report shows that PRASA is still not on track and not achieving the kind of results required in terms of their rail turnaround plan presented to Parliament last year. Furthermore a cumulative “irregular expenditure” of R28bn, reported upon by the Auditor General in the previous year’s annual accounts, has not been resolved with Treasury.
It appears that copper theft, occupation of rail reserve by squatter land and vandalization by communities near stations are presently perceived as near insurmountable problems. These are just some of the issues facing the worried state entity, coupled with the fact that National Treasury is now unable to part with further sums of state subsidy to assist PRASA https://www.prasa.com/ as was previously the case. Also, the training of security staff has apparently a difficult task and limited technical know-how at the workplace was reported as an ever-present issue. Cadre deployment takes toll at PRASA
Lockdown regulations hurt
PRASA management further confirmed to MPs that recovery plans were adversely affected by lockdown regulations and the Covid pandemic, which in turn affecting the attendance of railway staff. The and restrictions and regulations have thrown passenger routines, established routes and commuters habits into chaos. For example, the terminal station in Cape Town is still closed and trains run through piles of rubbish with the result that Metrorail consumers are reluctant to use the few routes on offer.
With PRASA now hived off from Transnet, the metro services are run as a separate entity under PRASA, MPs were told. In 2020, “interventions” by National Treasury under previous minister Tito Mboweni had allowed for a special R900-million budget to go towards revised security operations planned by what was then a brand-new board. This was welcomed at the time by Parliament and new hope was established for the survival of the state entity. Cadre deployment takes toll at PRASA – ParlyReportSA
The original plan included including the creation of an internal security capability for armed response and control room operations; a procurement phase for early warning security technology and a defensive security system; procurement of specialised investigative services with legal support; and the use of drones to conduct patrols of high-risk infrastructure.
Deputy Minister of Transport, Sindisiwe Chikunga, new to the job in her first ministerial post, gave a reasonable accounting of government’s attempts to rehabilitate PRASA, all as part of the generalised Transnet overhaul, but her script was obviously pre-written and predictable. Her main theme was that the new PRASA team was doing the best it could under difficult circumstances.
PRASA not achieving results
In answer to many questions, chairperson of the PRASA board, Leonard Ramatlakane, specifically answered MPs from the northern provinces, who had complained of no rail services whatsoever. and asked why this was so. He said the focus had to be on restoring metro services in Gauteng, the Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal and he admitted that rail service delivery to the rest of the provinces was virtually non-existent but he said this was due to vandalism and cable theft in those areas.
Limited financial resources, he said, were being directed towards the three main urban commuter systems for the present moment in order to get the centralised services up and running on a regular basis to move critical workforces. They were denied at the moment regular rail transport and had to arrange difficult and alternative road transport arrangements out of necessity, at more expense.
On the current issue of squatters occupying rail reserve, the Deputy Minister explained that most of illegal households were there deliberately using their structures as a lever to obtain free housing, not as a result of having no land.
It had been decided that the provincial legislatures had to assist in identifying land for housing first for such squatters, whilst the purse for buying that land and the building of homes had to remain the responsibility of PRASA. This was the decision of the courts after another long wait for court time and which had further compounded delays.
On the funding necessary for this approach, he said the response from National Treasury was that the mandate of PRASA was to “run trains and not buy land”, it also being pointed out by Treasury that such was the task of local and provincial government and that funds for this purpose had been directed in terms of annual national appropriation of budget, Treasury added.
As a result, negotiations were now underway with the provinces on this issue, reaching different stages with both Gauteng and Western Cape. In the meanwhile, intervention at a national level by Department of Transport (DOT), and now Public Works, had ensured that various pieces of national land could be available to PRASA. It was a gradually evolving situation, MPs were told.
Leonard Ramatlakane further answered parliamentarians by saying, “The current pre-occupation is therefore the facilitation of the removal of people from rail areas to certain sites with build-projects. However, groups had now come forward to contest the relocation of the squatters to new locations, demanding certain standards of housing and for municipal services be defined and guaranteed.” He concluded that that PRASA was currently “working through this one” with local authorities.
When one’s back is turned
There was long discussion with parliamentarians as to why PRASA is not achieving results and was able get on top of the theft of railway line and copper cabling. They were told that railway line theft, which had become more prevalent during the Covid 19 pandemic, had resulted in whole kilometre lengths of track “disappearing” in outlying areas.
Zolani Matthews told MPs that track was cut up and sold openly by the thieves to scrap metal merchants. He said that the same metal dealers then re-sold sections of track in small sections with impunity and quite obviously state property, to the public. These dealers had obtained an interdict from the courts that “disallowed any interference by SAPS to sell legitimate goods” calling this “an attack on small business rights”.
Above the law
He said, “The relevant Act currently is not prohibitive on the sale of any goods of any specific type or make, no descriptions of goods called for, nor having a requirement to give terms and classifications for any sales that metal scrap yards should comply with in terms of their operating licenses.” Zolani Matthews concluded that this problem had been around for a long time and PRASA officials had been told to leave yards, when trying to track down the stolen track as there was no legal ground for their enquiries and their presence was obstructing business.
The current situation is that any person who buys and sells second-hand goods for a living is defined as carrying on a business as such and must accordingly be registered as a second-hand goods dealer in terms of the Act. However, a dealer who engages in the recycling of controlled metal must, in addition, to being a dealer, also be registered as a recycler.
SAPS has regularly told PRASA, Matthews said, that all SAPS can do in the case of copper wire located in the wrong hands, is to ask to see a recycling dealers licence. Selling steel, whether it be railway track or not as a dealer is thus totally inconsequential.
He repeated that copper cable theft was now paralysing whole sections of PRASA operations but extended discussions with SAPS had gone nowhere due to the lack of authority on their part to police matters and with no criminality expressed on the matter as expressed under the Act, they could do nothing. On substitutes for copper and in answer to MPs questions, PRASA said it was experimenting with different metals, trying out different energy drives and trying to take copper out of the energy supply equation but these were long-term answers.
Tim Brauteseth (DA) said an urgent requirement of Parliament should be for legislation criminalising re-cyclers if they handed or dealt in any with defined commodities they were not licensed to handle. He suggested that, as in the case of the uncut diamond market, certain goods must be specified; that a number of specified dealers should be selected only and registered for the buying and selling of defined goods with all transactions clearly recorded in detail . He said there was lack of political will by the governing party to undertake such an exercise and he asked why PRASA is not achieving results on this.
Brauteseth continued with a detailed proposal that sales should be backed up by certification and that a “clean record” and availability to SAPS of records being the condition for continuation of the dealership licence. Any non-certificated sales should constitute a crime, penalties for which had to be severe, Brauteseth said.
Both Zolani Matthews and Leonard Ramatlakane could not be drawn on such a detailed approach and there was no comment from the new Deputy Minister. In general-operating terms, it was reported that out of the twenty-four PRASA regular rail commuter corridors, twelve have been opened since 2020 and nine more would have been opened but not until after the latest date for the removal of illegal settlements, scheduled originally to begin in October 2021. There was a strong possibility that the Minister of Transport would be re-opening the Mabopane-Pretoria rail corridor shortly and which was used previously by 300,000 commuters.
On the annual accounts, the Auditor General had highlighted R28.6bn in irregular expenditure carried over from 2020 but Ramatlakane hastened to tell MPs in answer to angry questions that this money was not necessarily lost to corruption. At the moment, PRASA was reporting back to National Treasury on findings following procedure to determine whether the irregular expenditure was in respect of any benefit that may have accrued.
He told MPs that in March 2021’ it was explained to Treasury that R11bn was used to finance a certain project, but that proof had been supplied that goods were received to the value of the same amount. PRASA had asked Treasury to consider re-allocation of the sum involved, leaving a balance of around R17.6bn billion. They awaited a reply.
He assured members of the select committee that PRASA would continue reporting to Treasury and he made an undertaking that PRASA would report back in respect of the R17.6bn under investigation.