Carol Paton Writer at Large
Blade Nzimande. Picture: GCIS
Blade Nzimande. Picture: GCIS

Transport minister Blade Nzimande on Thursday said that the government’s strategy to turn around the crisis-ridden Passenger Rail Agency of SA (Prasa) had failed and that “something much more drastic” was needed.

The failure of commuter rail transport due to theft, industrial sabotage and neglect of signalling and other rail infrastructure has become a source of major social discontent. It was demonstrated bluntly in March when President Cyril Ramaphosa was stranded on a broken down train for two hours during an electioneering outing in Pretoria.

Activist grouping #Unite Behind has been campaigning for the train service to be declared a disaster so that emergency steps can be taken.

Nzimande said he would put in place a two-stage intervention beginning with a appointment of a task team of organisational or performance experts to undertake an analysis of Prasa over the next two months.

“A factual report will be presented to me addressing key factors that would have led to the failed implementation of Prasa’s Turn-Around Strategies,” he said.

On the basis of the report, Prasa would appoint a turnaround execution team under the direction of the department of transport. The team would report to both the minister and the board, he said.

In addition to its security and infrastructure problems, Prasa has been beset with internal instability and has not had a permanent CEO for six years. Nzimande said when he took over the  a year ago, he had put in a place an interim board and soon afterwards had developed a turnaround strategy.

After being directed by Ramaphosa to urgently resolve the challenges plaguing Prasa, Nzimande said he met with the board two weeks ago to review the turnaround strategy.

“It was out of that [meeting] that I realised we need to do something much more drastic.”

Nzimande said he had extended the term of the interim board for another six months to put in place the new strategy. He also announced a series of other urgent steps for Prasa, beginning with the appointment of a permanent CEO and other senior executives, where acting appointments are also in place and the boosting of capacity and skills in the office of the CEO. Prospective employees would be thoroughly vetted by the State Security Agency, he said.

Several Prasa staff, including former acting CEO Mthuthuzeli Swartz, have been charged with serious crimes. Swartz appeared earlier this week in a Port Elizabeth court on charges of fraud, money laundering and theft.  Fourteen security staff have been fired for theft.

Nzimande said he had instructed the board of Prasa, which is headed by businesswoman Khanyisile Kweyama, to stabilise operations focusing on a revised train timetable based on the number of trains available. Trains, rail infrastructure and passengers are to be secured with security personnel on all trains and all depots and corridors would be fenced.

The objective must be to reduce train cancellations by 60% and delays by 41%, he said.

The steps being taken by Nzimande are among those commuter and activist groups have been campaigning for in the past year. #Unite Behind has also called on Nzimande to appoint a permanent board and for the board to provide a commuter safety plan.