In the coming months, 1 759 prisoners on parole and probation will participate in the national campaign to clean the Passenger Rail Agency of SA (Prasa) rail tracks, clear vegetation around rail areas and removal of the dirt illegally dumped along the railway lines.
The six-month campaign, whose planning started in December, is driven by Prasa and the department of correctional services, is intended to restore the rail infrastructure ahead of the resumption of services in some corridors.
Work should soon commence in Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, Gauteng and the Western Cape regions.
While the participants will not be paid they will receive a stipend of between R1 750 to R2 500 per month to cover food and transport costs.
Critics insist that the campaign rewards criminal behaviour. Instead these opportunities should have been given to millions of unemployed people with no criminal records.
The ANC’s uMkhonto we Sizwe Military Veterans Association (MKMVA) is opposed to this campaign, suggesting that unemployed military veterans or young people in the townships should be considered instead.
MKMVA president Kebby Maphatsoe told City Press: “We condemn the move because there are so many people who are unemployed, including the youth, women and military veterans.
“However, we do not condemn people when they are in prison, which is why we call it correctional services. But if government wants to reduce unemployment, why does it recruit prisoners to do work that should be done by the unemployed,” Maphatsoe said.
He said the approach was “disturbing” and the presidential task team, in which different national departments are represented, should explain why the unemployed people are being further marginalised.
“The campaign is ill-informed and there is no serious decision to deal with unemployment. Rehabilitating prisoners cannot be done at the expense of unemployed people and law-abiding citizens,” he said.
The department of correctional services defended the decision, saying: “The rehabilitation and reintegration of offenders remains a strategic priority that aims to correct offending behaviour, promote social responsibility and enhance human development of all offenders, parolees and probationers.”
Spokesperson Singabakho Nxumalo said: “The rehabilitation of offenders and their successful social reintegration should be a priority to society at large as part of crime prevention.”
Nxumalo said Prasa was making a direct contribution to the prisoners’ rehabilitation mandate of the department and this covered the re-integration of people.
“Through this project, participants will achieve experience that will bode well for their CVs. Such a project will cushion parolees and probationers when they return to a normal life as they remain a vulnerable group in society.”
He said: “Corrections is a societal responsibility and therefore stakeholders, such as communities, business and private companies, other government departments and non-governmental organisations, should participate in the social reintegration of offenders, parolees and probationers back into communities.”
Nxumalo said the project would be implemented in the regions where Prasa had over the years battled with infrastructure vandalism and illegal dumping. This decay had worsened when trains ceased to operate during the nationwide Covid-19 lockdown.
“This is a community initiative that involves parolees and probationers and not inmates. The project is mainly to empower parolees and probationers with skills for employability, job preparedness and successful reintegration,” he said.
Prasa spokesperson Bane Ndlovu said: “The cleaning of our servitudes is an in-house initiative whereby Prasa employees have been part and parcel of cleaning areas which are not in good condition.
“In some instances these are carried out through corporate social investments initiatives. Furthermore, some of these programmes would infuse developmental elements aimed at contributing to addressing the triple challenges of poverty, unemployment and inequality.”
Ndlovu added: “The process deliberately targets a sector of the vulnerable groups, which are prison members who are being reintegrated into society, in this instance.”
He said the failure to achieve performance targets contributed to the deterioration of the rail infrastructure “with visible heaps of dirt and undesirable substances or objects were observed in the reserves and servitudes”.
Previous efforts to have the rails cleaned up had resulted in irregular expenditure and flagged by the Auditor-General, he said.
“It is still ideal that this service is sourced inside or outside of Prasa. All the communities at large may compete when the tenders, regionally come out [in April]. This project serves both objectives of re-integrating the prison communities and addressing the unemployment objectives. When the project is completed, they will have an opportunity to compete.”
Ndlovu said the initiative would give the prisoners a reason to believe that they can survive outside of the prison system and not be repeat offenders and this would reduce crime.