During a parliamentary appearance, it became clear that the new Prasa board has a long way to go to fix the vandalism and governance issues that plague the entity.
“We are here for a month, but it feels like a long time already,” said Leonard Ramatlakane, the newly appointed chairperson of the board of the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa). In a virtual meeting on Tuesday 24 November the board of Prasa and Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula addressed Parliament’s Standing Committee on Public Accounts (Scopa) on the current state of affairs at the agency.
The meeting was a follow-up to one with Scopa in November 2019, when MPs lambasted Prasa for its lack of governance and record-keeping and high levels of theft and vandalism. In a February 2020 follow-up meeting, Prasa officials were again rapped over the knuckles over vandalism and governance issues at the agency.
But a lot has happened since Prasa’s previous appearance before the committee. In December 2019 Mbalula dismissed the interim board and appointed Bongisizwe Mpondo as the agency’s administrator. Activist coalition #UniteBehind then asked the courts to overturn Mpondo’s appointment as they believed due process had not been followed. In August 2020, the Western Cape High Court ruled in #UniteBehind’s favour: Mpondo had been unlawfully appointed.
At the end of the October court-mandated deadline to appoint a new board, former ANC MP Ramatlakane was appointed as the new chairperson of the board of control, while vandalism and theft of rail infrastructure had increased across South Africa.
Stripped bare: Looting till there is nothing left of Gauteng’s rail network
On Tuesday, Ramatlakane and his team led by acting CEO Thandeka Mabija, relayed the entity’s finances. The entity’s irregular expenditure stood at R1.3-billion (for supply chain management issues and competitive bidding processes, which were not followed). The Office of the Auditor-General identified R48-million worth of fruitless and wasteful expenditure, which relate to interest, penalties and incorrect rates for Sunday work. Prasa made a loss of R2.3-billion in the 2019/2020 financial year.
Prasa also received another disclaimer audit from the Auditor-General, for incomplete governance records, poor financial management, poor record-keeping and instability at key leadership positions. It was the second year in a row that Prasa had received a disclaimer on its audit findings.
On Tuesday Mbalula told Scopa that Prasa was on the right track, and that the department and the new board were “addressing the sheer criminality” at the agency. Mbalula said the biggest priority would be for the board to focus on Prasa’s security plan in order to fast-track the recovery of the embattled rail service.
But MPs were worried. “What concerns me, from the last time, is there hasn’t been any change,” said the DA’s Benedicta van Minnen. The party’s Alf Lees said the vandalism on the rail system was “disgusting” and wanted to know what was being done to remedy that.
Acting CEO Mabija said Prasa was in the process of employing armed security guards to combat vandalism, and investing in security infrastructure such as drones.
Asked about the lawfulness of decisions made by Mpondo, which included the hiring and firing of executives and the creation of Prasa’s safety plan, Mbalula said: “The court did not pronounce on any other matter besides the appointment – all decisions remain valid unless set aside by the court.”
However, Ramatlakane said the board was currently compiling a list of decisions made by Mpondo and if there were any grey areas, the board would “apply our mind to those decisions”.
Also present at the meeting was advocate Andy Mothibi, the head of the Special Investigating Unit (SIU), who told the committee that investigations into governance and corruption at Prasa should be complete by March 2021.
In August 2019 President Cyril Ramaphosa signed off a proclamation that allowed the SIU to investigate contracts signed off as far back as 2010, to investigate irregular payments and probe allegations of improper conduct by employees. Mothibi asked if a meeting could be scheduled to relay a “comprehensive presentation” on the progress of the SIU’s investigation.
The chairperson of Scopa, Mkhuleko Hlengwa, said a meeting would be scheduled for the new year and plans were under way for an inquiry by the committee.
Hlengwa said Prasa needed to be taken seriously, as the “majority of our people depend on it” and, because of the “chaos and nonsense” as well as the looting and destruction, Prasa would need to remain on the radar of the committee. DM