The tall tale of Prasa's R3.5bn locomotives

Lucky Montana. (Alet Pretorius, Netwerk24)
Lucky Montana. (Alet Pretorius, Netwerk24)

When the ANC took over the country's rail infrastructure, it quickly became a looting ground for cronies and both Prasa and Transnet are now limping along to the graveyard of failed SOEs, writes Adriaan Basson.

The auctioning of 13 locomotives by a shelf company that won a R3.5bn tender from the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) is proof that the ANC's attempts to modernise rail transport have hit rock-bottom.

South African Railways (SAR), that through various iterations became Transnet and Prasa in a democratic dispensation, was a major creator of jobs and an Afrikaner middle-class by the illegitimate apartheid regime.

The ANC has spectacularly failed to use our vast railways network and need for rail transport – by workers, industrialists and tourists – to create jobs, wealth and a sustainable rail economy.

Growing up in an Afrikaner community, I vividly remember the stories about uncle so-and-so who worked on the railways and how his family's lives were intimately connected to the wellbeing of the SAR. From social activities and accommodation to study bursaries, the SAR created an entire class of people who were proud of their employer and their work.

When the ANC took over this infrastructure in 1994, it quickly became a looting ground for cronies and comrades and in 2019 both Prasa and Transnet are limping along to the graveyard of failed state-owned enterprises.

In June 2015, journalist Pieter-Louis Myburgh revealed in Rapport that Prasa had purchased 25 diesel and 45 electric locomotives from an unknown shelf company called Swifambo Rail Leasing at a cost of R3.5bn.

Although South Africa has a train-building industry on the East Rand of Johannesburg, Swifambo subcontracted Vossloh España in Spain to build the locomotives. Red flag number one.

The purchase was supposed to ring in a new era of modernisation at Prasa under the flamboyant and big-spending CEO Lucky Montana. He paid R2.6bn of the purchase price to Swifambo.

Thirteen of the diesel locomotives were the first batch to arrive, but before they could hit the rails, Myburgh sprang a huge surprise on the country when he revealed that the trains were too tall. Not metaphorically, but literally too tall for our rail infrastructure.

Montana blew a fuse and among other things, accused Myburgh of being a racist and getting his facts wrong.

"We meet the safety standards. We have bought one of the best locomotives in the world and we are not even apologetic about that… During our testing, the train passed through tunnels. There is no bridge that was hit. From our side, there is no story. The hype is focused on other things," Montana said.

Turns out he was lying through his teeth.

The locomotives were too tall and are being auctioned off in September in a desperate attempt by Swifambo to recoup some of the money they owe Prasa.

In an attempt to uncapture itself from the Montana years, oversaw by political heads Jeff Radebe, S'bu Ndebele, Ben Martins, Dipuo Peters and Joe Maswanganyi, the agency has successfully cancelled the "unlawful" contract through the courts and is now suing Swifambo – a shelf company with a fax machine – for R2.6bn.

Swifambo's liquidators hope to sell the 13 locomotives (one was badly damaged during a train crash in the Northern Cape) for about R300m.

If they are successful and this is the only money the state is able to recover from Swifambo, Prasa would have lost R2.3bn with this transaction.

Two fun facts that Myburgh reminds us of 1) Prasa only paid R1.8bn to Vossloh for the trains; it kept R800m for itself. 2) After the transaction was clinched, Swifambo paid R80m to Angolan businesswoman Maria Gomes, a close family friend of former president Jacob Zuma, and to George Sabelo, an ANC lawyer with links to Zuma's family. Connect the dots.

Nobody has gone to prison for this daylight robbery. In the meantime, commuters with Prasa's Metrorail trains hope and pray for a day when the trains will run on time and be safe, especially for women, to use without the fear of being robbed or attacked.

- Basson is editor-in-chief of News24.

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