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Mbalula’s war with military vets belies the Prasa disaster

The political brand of Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula is overdue for a major overhaul. Recent chaos created by his public spat with the leaders of uMkhonto weSizwe Military Veterans Association (MKMVA), Carl Niehaus and Kebby Maphatsoe, and ANC secretary general Ace Magashule, inadvertently gave some degree of legitimacy to a flopping protest.

The exchange of tweets began after the veterans protested outside the office of Gauteng Premier David Makhura calling for Mbalula’s arrest for the disintegration of the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa).

Admittedly, the exchanges were a welcome comic relief, but they belie the deplorable situation Prasa is in. They also confirm Mbalula’s seeming inability to shed his trademark as a political chameleon and youthful firebrand who uses his position and loud voice to shout down everyone he disagrees with. He achieves this by hiding behind humorous antics. 

But the country is divided on the effectiveness of Mbalula’s insults. Some say he is not funny. He comes across as if at the slightest provocation he gets unhinged, acts impulsively and creates entertaining chaos either to divert attention when his weaknesses are exposed or to get what he wants. He is known to shoot from the hip. In other words, through funny insults, he hides his failure to fix the ailing Prasa. 

Others argue that beneath the humour is a politically mature and shrewd individual who deals with his political nemeses effectively and advances the dominant narrative in the ANC. He uses humour to survive and thrive even under most difficult political times. They see the recent spat as a calculated move to cement his position in President Cyril Ramaphosa’s camp now that the writing is on the wall for the “radical economic transformation” faction.

Whichever side you are on, there is no way of hiding from the ANC-created disaster at Prasa. MKMVA’s demand for Mbalula’s arrest may be a political ruse, but the minister missed an opportunity to update the nation on the work he is doing. By failing to respond factually and professionally to what seems to be a legitimate grievance, his actions make it clear his unwillingness to recognise that livelihoods are at stake. And this is where our collective amusement with his antics should stop, considering the perilous state Prasa is in.

To fully appreciate the mess Prasa has become, we need to go back a few years. The crisis began shortly after the government announced in about 2010 that it would spend R97-billion on infrastructure for Prasa’s subsidiaries, Metrorail and long-distance services. The hyenas and the vultures sprang into action, encircling Prasa.

It did not help that at the helm of Prasa was the flamboyant Lucky Montana. He went out of his way to give jobs and tenders to friends and ANC comrades, often without following due processes. Consequently, Prasa has in its ranks employees who are partners, children, family members and associates of cabinet ministers, senior government officials and former board members. The service provider list, especially of security services, one of the major operational costs, is the who’s who of the ANC. 

There were about 20 security companies with people such as Manala Manzini, a former national intelligence boss, and Roy Moodley, the ANC’s and former president Jacob Zuma’s benefactor. Other beneficiaries of multimillion-rand illegal tenders included the current ANC spokesperson, Pule Mabe. Prasa was a hotbed of all kinds of malfeasance such as nepotism, corruption and maladministration. This is borne out by former public protector Thuli Madonsela’s report, aptly titled Derailed, and auditor general reports from 2015 onwards. 

No wonder the Railway Safety Regulator concluded two years ago that the only option they were left with was to suspend Prasa’s operating licence because it “cannot demonstrate that it has the ability‚ commitment and resources to properly assess and effectively control the risks arising from its railway operations”.

More recently, Mbalula signed off Prasa’s latest corporate plan, which says that “procurement in Prasa has in essence come to a standstill, with a large number of contracts having been deemed irregular and cancelled. Committees to process procurement through specifications, evaluations and awards have not functioned properly for a number of years, which has resulted in critical shortages in inventory for the maintenance of rolling stock and infrastructure, both of which are prerequisites for effective train-service performance.”

This means Prasa has a budget of about R20-billion for infrastructure that is not being used. Given the near financial collapse of the state-owned enterprise, it is now dipping into this infrastructure fund to cover day-to-day operations.  

Even more troubling is the continuing vandalism of infrastructure because of Mbalula’s erratic decision to cancel security contracts. With a lack of expertise to manage Prasa, dwindling revenue accompanied by an excessive increase in operational costs, we know from Eskom experience that we are headed for a costly disaster. In the meantime, millions of passengers, the majority of which are the poorest of the poor with no affordable alternative means of transport, must make life or death choices when going to work by train. 

The minister should appreciate that the Prasa situation is not going to change through him cutting corners and tweeting up a storm. 

It will take firm and steady hands to navigate Prasa out of the political and operational abyss it is in. He needs to do better and shed his trademark as a howling, youthful political firebrand.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

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