Your time is over, Mbalula tells rail crooks

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Minister of Transport Fikile Mbalula.  Photo: Gallo Images
Minister of Transport Fikile Mbalula. Photo: Gallo Images
  • Minister of Transport Fikile Mbalula has talked tough on corruption, saying the time for "thieves" is over.
  • He also called for strong appointments in the transport sector, saying engineers are required, not "theologians".
  • He said even though he had his reservations about the Zondo report, he realised its importance in helping parastatals function transparently.

Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula has thrown his weight behind Chief Justice Raymond Zondo's report on the Commission of Inquiry into State Capture, saying government and its entities have to take its recommendations on board if they hope to reform.

He also wants the country's transport SOEs to stop operating in silos in order to speed up improvements.

Mbalula was speaking at an event celebrating 100 locally-produced Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) electric trains in Nigel, Ekurhuleni on Monday afternoon. The event took place in Gibela Rail Consortium's Dunnottar Factory in Ekurhuleni, where the trains were built.

Speed up change

Mbalula said the country had had "nine years of good and bad" – understood to be a reference to the years under former president Jacob Zuma's administration – but that government now had a duty to "change and accelerate things".

He said he had some reservations about parts of Zondo's report, but realised its importance in helping parastatals function transparently. Everyone in government, including himself, had to take heed of its recommendations, he said.

Mbalula did not escape scrutiny in Zondo's report. According to Zondo, he misled former Public Protector Thuli Madonsela and shielded Zuma, giving her evidence that conflicted with the evidence he gave before the Zondo Commission.   

The Department of Transport – though not yet under Mbalula then – was also not spared from the state capture project during the Zuma years. Zondo's report found that Prasa's R3.5 billion contract with Swifambo Rail Leasing for 70 locomotives was "so flawed" that "any reasonable person" would have seen that it was corrupt from the start.

But Mbalula has talked tough on corruption recently, notably calling on Zuma to step aside from African National Congress (ANC) political activity.

READ | Zondo report: Mbalula shielded Zuma in his evidence to Public Protector

Getting back on track

Speaking at the event on Monday, Mbalula said in addition to state capture, the pandemic had thrown a curve ball at the country's transport systems. The 100 trains delivered by the Gibela plant were supposed to be delivered in 2020, but disruptions due to the Covid-19 lockdown meant their delivery was put off by two years, he said.

"We have been hampered by a number of things. Ukusela, corruption, among others. But our situation has not improved since for the better.

"Covid-19 came at a bad time and while people want to act like we did not go through that, it did happen," said Mbalula.

READ | Government releases SA's draft plan to revive rail

But he also called for building capacity in key areas.

"The mistake we tend to make is we take a theologian and put them in charge of trains. Trains need an engineer," said Mbalula.

Mbalula said state-owned entities (SOEs) like Transnet and Prasa needed to cooperate and leverage each other's strengths if they hoped to capitalise on the national rail network.

"Transnet must work with Prasa. Not this thing of competing. For them to succeed they need us. SOEs are already competing with companies that have stolen from the government," he said, adding that the time of reckoning had come for "thieves" looking to profit from parastatals.

"That is why people don't believe us because these thieves are now emboldened. They are now looking to steal more. But no one has told them that their time has arrived," Mbalula said.

He said since the conclusion of the report of the Commission of Inquiry into State Capture, South Africans would demand to see state-owned companies reform their operations and law enforcement agencies arrest, try and convict those who looted public funds.

"Baba (Raymond) Zondo, you may not like him, and even I have my issues with the report's findings. But he did a good job of uncovering this corruption. There is no reason now not to work overtime and deliver," said Mbalula.

READ | Mbalula to companies: Help us improve SA's rail system

Playing catch-up

Prasa chair Leonard Ramatlakane, meanwhile, said the rail agency was working to modernise infrastructure on its passenger rail network so that it could get the most out of the state-of-the-art trains.

"These trains we see today require modern infrastructure. Part of this is ensuring that we have up-to-date technology at our depots. Where we have the infrastructure in place, we have already installed the train, Istimela Sabantu," said Ramatlakane.

Ramatlakane said: "The modernisation of the trains and infrastructure support has enabled them to move at a max speed of 130 km per hour. About 50 trains have already passed this test. We want to assure you that Prasa is hard at work."

Gauteng Premier David Makhura called the event a major milestone in South African industrial production and jobs.

"These trains are built by South Africans. We are re-industrialising. We are supporting the steel industry in our country and on the back of that other industries. We are empowering our people. Black people are at the forefront of building these trains," said Makhura.

Makhura pleaded with the public to be good stewards of the locally produced trains, saying the "milestone must not be destroyed" by protest-related vandalism or looting.

Attendees were also told that in the coming weeks, the government would undertake "a massive campaign like never before" to repair potholes on South Africa's roads. 

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