By James Stent
Commuter activist group #UniteBehind has urged President Cyril Ramaphosa and Minister of Transport Fikile Mbalula to dissolve the board of the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (PRASA), appoint a new board and move passenger rail to the metros and provinces. But recent comments from another minister suggest that the party will resist attempts to shift control of commuter rail.
In a 24 January letter of demand addressed to the President and Minister of Transport, #UniteBehind demands that
- the Minister of Transport dissolve the current PRASA board and appoint a competent new board;
- PRASA be placed under judicial management or business rescue;
- independent engineers be appointed to resolve the Siyangena matter (pending since 2020); and
- plans be made with municipalities that have commuter rail infrastructure to ensure that the service is handed over as soon as possible, in Cape Town and Gauteng in particular.
#UniteBehind set a deadline of 14 February. If these demands are not met by then, the group intends to go to court.
Devolution of commuter rail transport has been official government policy since the publication of the 1996 National Transport Policy White Paper. This policy has been confirmed in subsequent White Papers, including the most recent one from 2022, and in law, with the National Land Transport Act of 2009 saying that commuter rail should be located ”in the appropriate sphere of government”.
Cape Town Mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis has been asking Mbalula to pass on responsibility for commuter rail in the city. The City of Cape Town already completed a business plan in 2018 and is currently developing a feasibility study for the takeover of commuter rail. The Gauteng Provincial government has also indicated a wish to take over from the crisis-riddled PRASA.
But remarks by Mmamoloko Kubayi, Minister of Human Settlements and head of the ANC’s economic transformation subcommittee, published in the Sunday World last week, suggest that, contrary to policy documents and legislation, the government’s stance is to resist devolution. “We can’t give it to metros. On policy we would not agree, and we have not made these proposals, and this will not change,” said Kubayi to the Sunday World.
On Monday, Hill-Lewis released a statement calling on the President to clarify whether Kubayi’s comments were, in fact, government policy.
“We are ready to re-establish a viable rail service in the best interests of commuters, and we are ready to work with national government at any time to achieve this. The fact is rail has collapsed nationally. PRASA now only transports 3% of the passengers it did a decade ago nationally. PRASA is now bankrupt, with billions lost to corrupt deals, including trains too big for the tracks. Change is long overdue,” wrote Hill-Lewis.
He said his latest correspondence with Mbalula indicated that the minister’s department was developing a “Devolution Strategy”, to be completed in 2024.