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With Mbalula in the driver’s seat, we’re on a rail to nowhere

- William Gumede

Lack of effective public transport is now a major constraint on economic growth, job creation and business productivity.

South Africa’s public transport system, whether to carry passengers or goods, have been systemically destroyed by corruption, incompetence, and little long-term planning, undermining economic growth, investment, and job creation.

Recently, the remainder of the already disintegrating public transport system have been vandalised, whether because of misguided destruction of it by those participating in protests against poor services, for wage increases and those who cynically destroy it, to secure a tender to restore the destroyed infrastructure.

Lack of care by ANC and government leaders, incompetence to look after existing or to plan for future public transport needs, and the breakdown of law and order because of the capture of law enforcement, has meant that public transport has been allowed to steadily fall apart.

South Africa’s public transport system is now worse than it was under apartheid, not dissimilar to almost all African countries, where public transport systems are worse than they were more than 60 years after the end of colonialism.

In fact, South Africa’s public transport system is now the worse compared to all its emerging market peers. Lack of effective public transport is now a major constraint on economic growth, job creation and business productivity, competitiveness, and continuing existence. 

The destruction, neglect, and lack of expansion of South Africa’s public transport by the ANC government since 1994, is not only one of the most soul-destroying things to see, but it has plunge many into unemployment, poverty and fractured many communities. The collapse of the public transport system has been one of the biggest destroyers of job creation, economic growth, and investment attraction. It has led to reduced opportunities for individuals and businesses, the breakdown of connectivity between and within communities and therefore lowering the quality of life of many citizens.

Rail infrastructure is on the brink of system collapse because of corruption, mismanagement, and deliberate vandalism. Rail infrastructure, including many stations have been further decimated by vandalism during the Covid-19 lockdown. Astonishingly, there is only five commuter rail services, called Metrorail, operational across South Africa. These are the Pretoria to Saulsville line, the Pretoria to Mabopane line, the Cape Town to Cape Flats line, the Cape Town to Simonstown line and the Cape Town to Wellington line are the only ones operational. For months now been no Metro commuter line train service between Johannesburg and Pretoria, except for the Gautrain. Most of the commuter rail services connecting the Soweto townships to Johannesburg are not operational. In KwaZulu Natal, the Umlazi and KwaMashu commuter rail services are not operational.

Since January this year, there has been no train services in the whole of the Eastern Cape, neither Metrorail city passenger services nor long-distance train services between major towns. The Shosholoza Meyl, which runs the long-distance commuter train services, has been out of service since February 2020, when it was suspended after the Railway Safety Regulator’s demanded it been done after a deadline crash outside Johannesburg.

In 2019, President Cyril Ramaphosa had first-hand experience of the collapsing passenger rail services when as part of an election campaign joined commuters on a 45-minute train trip from Mahikeng to Pretoria. Unexplained delays meant the trip lasted more than three hours.

There is only limited long-distance passenger services on two routes, a weekly Johannesburg to Port Elizabeth, Johannesburg to East London and Johannesburg to Musina in Limpopo passenger service. There is no Johannesburg to Cape Town train service. Even where there are rail passenger services, these are unreliable, unsafe, and limited.

South Africa’s rail network in 2021 carried the lowest freight volumes recorded the past decade, as the declining rail services forces companies to use roads instead, damaging road infrastructure, causing delays and detours – all which undermines the economy.

Most of South Africa’s state bus companies have collapsed. A typical example is that of the state-owned Mayibuye Transport Corporation in the Eastern Cape, which has half of its fleet out of service, the company unable to pay mechanics and service providers. Many of the buses of the state-owned Northwest Star bus service, which operates in Gauteng and North West, are out of service, the company have been unable to pay its employees and has defaulted on payments to its employees’ provident fund.

State and subsidised public bus services have been slashed across the country since 2015. The Public Utility Transport Corporation (PUTCO) cancelled key routes in Tshwane, Ekurhuleni, Sedibeng, Katlehong, Vosloorus, Thokoza, Mamelodi and Meyerton, saying the subsidy it received from government was too little.

Minibus tax operators have violently attacked short and long-distance commuter passenger bus services – often with seemingly feeble responses from law enforcement agencies, with very few culprits having been prosecuted for this. For example, Mamelodi taxi operators have on many occasions tried to block state bus operator Autopax, a subsidiary of PRASA, from operating in the township. In Cape Town, taxi operators regularly attacked Golden Arrow commuter buses, which they see as competition in the townships.

In September 2022, in a typical violent attack, Golden Arrow buses were attacked in Nyanga, Philippi and Samora Machel, including a bus with school children, after the law enforcement agencies clamped down on illegal taxi operators, called amaphelas. These amaphelas, a Xhosa word for cockroach, is unlicenced sedan taxis, which have mushroomed in Cape Town townships following the limited public transport. They charge R10 a trip to township destinations.

Minibus taxi associations have violently attacked long-distance bus operators, to take over their passengers, with government standing idly by. In September 2022, the InterCape bus company had to take government to court in the High Court in Makhanda to compel government to provide safety to long-distance operators, drivers, and passengers against violent attacks from minibus taxi operators. Meter-taxi operators have violently attacked ride hailing services, such as uber in Johannesburg and Pretoria.

South Africa’s state-owned ports are clogged – with very little products getting out to markets. The 2020 World Bank report ‘The Container Port Performance Index 2020, A Comparable Assessment of Container Port Performance’ placed the performance of SA’s biggest ports, Cape Town, Durban, Port Elizabeth and Ngqura ports, which are all managed by Transnet, in the bottom five out of a list of 351 global ports. These ports were ranked lower in efficiency than African ports such as Lagos, Dakar, and Maputo.

The country has been unable to maximise the recent global commodity booms because the country’s products face delays in export because of the declining infrastructure. Before the labour strike at Transnet last month, the mining sector in 2022 alone lost R50bn because of the deteriorating performance of Transnet’s rail and ports.

South Africa’s aviation transport infrastructure is also disintegrating rapidly, with many airport buildings suffering from neglect and underinvestment. State-owned South African Airways has collapsed under state capture, incompetent cadre deployment and lack of business sense.

Public transport is one of the anchors of modern economic development. In a globalised world, the efficient, safe, and comfortable moving of people and goods, to economic opportunities, workplaces, and markets, is crucial for individual, business and country economic prosperity. Country public transport that are of high quality, connectivity and reliable services increase growth, investment, and development, because they have positive multiplier effects, by increasing opportunities, access to local and global markets and community connectivity.

The Cabinet ministers appointed over the past few years to oversee the critical portfolio of public transport has been among the most mediocre imaginable. The state-owned companies that drive public transport, Transnet, PRASA and SAA, have been run down by incompetent cadre deployees, with little managerial skills, knowhow or care, their procurement systems captured by politically connected cadres and cannot operate without bailouts.

The private sector should be allowed to take over ailing public infrastructure either fully, or in public-private partnerships. Passengers, freight users and other stakeholders should set up consumer civil bodies, to hold transport SOEs accountable, police their procurement decisions and block the appointments of cadres as managers. Cadre deployment, cadre procurement and cadre public-private partnerships should be banned. Merit, competency and honest should guide all public appointments, procurement, and public-private partnerships. Unless there is urgent governmental intervention to rescue SA’s collapsing public transport system, the only public transport system left will that be that of minibus taxis.

William Gumede is Associate Professor, School of Governance, University of the Witwatersrand, and author of Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times (Tafelberg). This article was first published on TimesLive/Sunday Times.