Prasa locomotive. Picture: PRASA
Prasa locomotive. Picture: PRASA

Civil society organisation Unite Behind has called on transport minister Fikile Mbalula to extend the two-week period for nomination of candidates to serve on the new Prasa board to allow more people to participate in the process.

The organisation, a coalition of more than 20 civil society organisations, said on Tuesday that while it notes the urgency and importance of appointing a competent and permanent board for the cash-strapped Passenger Rail Agency of SA (Prasa), it was concerned about the time frame, given the Covid-19 pandemic.

Mbalula, who has described the state-owned rail and bus operator as a broken organisation, announced on Sunday that nominations for the board were open and the deadline set for June 1.

“Two weeks is short given the ongoing Covid-19 lockdown which has disrupted commuters’ and the public’s usual ways of accessing information. The [Covid-19] context will likely hamper participation,” said Unite Behind organiser Zukie Vuka.

“We urge the department of transport to consider extending the time for nominations to a month and broadcast the process as far and wide as possible, in innovative ways that are fully cognisant of the limitations of the current context [Covid-19 pandemic].”

Vuka said for the past two years they have been calling for the appointment of a competent and permanent board to stabilise Prasa, one of SA’s many state-owned enterprises that have been hollowed out by years of mismanagement and corruption.

Prasa announced in May that it is facing a “debilitating cash flow crunch” after failing to pay R23m to employees’ retirement fund benefits in the past two months. The entity said it was considering implementing job cuts through voluntary severance packages to ease its financial woes.

The company has lost R199m since the start of the Covid-1 lockdown in March. The revenue loss now projected for 2020 is R757m.

The rail agency has had five turnaround strategies since its inception. It received a disclaimer from the auditor-general in 2019, prompting Mbalula to dissolve the board and place the operator under administrator Bongisizwe Mpondo in December 2019. He subsequently assumed responsibilities of both the board and management and is accountable only to Mbalula.

On Tuesday, Vuka said that while a permanent board will “likely return Prasa to legality and accountability”, the board should start work as soon as possible rather than to wait for Mpondo’s term to end in December.

“We call on South Africans to place their skills and experience at our disposal, in order to build a passenger rail system that plays its rightful role as the backbone of our public transport system,” said Mbalula.