The Tale Of The Struggling Train Passenger & The Chauffeured Rail Execs

By Pinky Khoabane

LENA Mokwena’s daily routine to work in Johannesburg’s East Rand starts at around 1am when she wakes up and prepares for her journey from Vereeniging. This frail woman leaves her house at around 2am to board a train at around 3am – and that is if it arrives on time or if at all. She must clock at work at 7:30am or else….

Angie Mohlakwana starts work at 8am and like Mokwena, ought to leave her home in Vereeniging at around 2am but she says it’s too dark at that time and she, unlike Mokwena, is alone on her journey to the station. She says there’s a bridge she has to go under and can’t take the risk of being brutalised or even raped just to be on time at the workplace. She’s lucky in that her employer isn’t as strict and is accommodating of her socio-economic circumstances. 

It’s a long and arduous journey. Vereeniging to Park Station in Johannesburg and then on-board another to Germiston. Then it’s a taxi ride which brings them close to where they work before a long walk to their place of work – the plush homes of South Africa’s middle class. They are heavily dressed even on a Summer’s day because they leave home early and the trains are so dilapidated that in many instances there are no windows. 

They must board the return train at around 3:30pm – if it arrives on time or if at all – if they want to be home at around 8pm. 

The train was at one time the cheapest and most reliable form of transportation, especially for the poor. It was where school children and workers came to for transport. After its victory the National Party quickly took control of state apparatus. It sent Afrikaners to institutions like the railways, army, roads, and the South African Broadcasting Corporation. 

An old man I met recently told me how he was employed at the railways at the age of 15. He says, like many other white boys, he was paid very little but the work at the railways went towards a set number of points which got him an apprenticeship. He bemoans the dismal performance of trains today – how bad the time keeping is and how the infrastructure has simply fallen apart. He says in his day, they had to find the source of the problem and ensure it never happened again. “All of us who worked on the railways had come in as boys and left as old men at which time we would have worked on every part of that train”. Today’s kids attend universities and return with certificates and they are expected to run the railway system, he complains. 

Some years ago I wrote a publication for Metrorail which was meant to keep commuters abreast of developments in the organisation. The feedback was always the same; disgruntled commuters who were getting to work late, some even losing jobs, due to the cancellation of trains and trains arriving late. There was a weekly schedule of the performance of trains which at one point became an embarrassing statistic to churn out. There were hardly any improvements and the excuse of “old rolling stock of apartheid era” had become as tiresome as a scratched vinyl record. Commuters of the time were still patient and tolerant. Today’s commuter has become completely irritated at this treatment by the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) and responds by torching the trains. 

Very little improvement has taken place since then. In the year ended March 2018, Prasa admitted its performance had reached an all time low. It is losing passengers who have had no option but to find alternative transport, much more expensive than they can afford. But for the rest there’s no option. 

In the lead-up to the national elections in May, President Cyril Ramaphosa took a train ride and was “shocked” to experience the daily frustrations of rail commuters. The train was late, it was dirty, it was packed to near double capacity and some passengers were hanging out of the train. The now Transport Minister, Fikile Mbalula who was heading the ANC election campaign, accompanied the President on this trip. 

At Prasa head office meanwhile, the phone rings unanswered and the leadership lives in unutterable gluttony with no shame or a tinge of thought for those whom they are mandated to serve – the rail commuter passenger. Chairperson Khanyisile Kweyama and CEO Nkosinathi Sishi are said to be chauffeured around in luxury German vehicles with the assistance of a driver and bodyguards – all at the expense of Prasa and at the full disposal of these two human beings even whey they are not doing the utility’s business. 

The so-called communications manager Nana Zenani is as arrogant as her bosses, perhaps as a defence mechanism to cover-up her ineptitude. From the unanswered phone to the outdated website whose last news article was posted in June, not even the recent announcements by Mbalula on interventions to overhaul Prasa or the much welcomed news that it had appointed a permanent chief financial officer since 2014, made it on this website. 

On the question of whether there was any truth in claims that there were still 36 locomotives parked at Stadler Rail, the Swiss company that bought Vossloh España, a Spanish company that manufactured the 70 locomotives which Prasa bought at billions of rands, Zenani’s response is simply that the matter of the locomotives was “resolved in court with Swifambo losing the case”. Swifambo Rail “won” the tender to provide the locomotives and a high court judge in 2017 found the tender to have been corrupt and set aside the R3.5billion contract. Insiders say Vossloh España dealt directly with government institutions and not through third parties as in the case here, the third party being Swifambo Rail. Swifambo lost with costs, the appeal to the Constitutional Court for leave to appeal a decision by the Supreme Court of Appeal. 

The press release to which she refers me doesn’t have the answer to the question of the 36 locomotives. Her response: “I cannot answer on the Afro 4000 beyond this statement, thank you”. So who can answer this question? “The issue has been discussed and the legalities are finalised” she responds before referring me to the Constitutional Court website. 

Well, so much for communication, but that aside, Prasa is owed billions through this contract and will have to wait in line with other creditors of the now liquidated Swifambo to see if it can be paid. In the meantime very little improvements to the cash-strapped utility will take place. Mokwena, Mohlakwana and the many rail passengers will continue on their tortuous daily travel while the politically appointed civil servants retire to their safe and comfortable havens. 

It’s the stark reality of the class difference in South Africa. A growing gap between the haves and the have-nots and those who walk through the corridors of power, incapable of demonstrating even a tinge of humility.  



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