It will cost at least R4 billion to repair the extensive damage to the rail infrastructure, with transport minister Fikile Mbalula conceding that it was "ineptness" in running the Passenger Rail Agency of SA (Prasa) that led to the extensive pillaging. Though there had been vandalism and theft before, the National Transport Union (UNTU) has said that the agency's failure to put in place contingency security plans after cancelling security contracts in November last year exacerbated the situation. "Some of the enabling points that make it possible for (criminals) to have a holiday and honeymoon here at Prasa, is because...
It will cost at least R4 billion to repair the extensive damage to the rail infrastructure, with transport minister Fikile Mbalula conceding that it was "ineptness" in running the Passenger Rail Agency of SA (Prasa) that led to the extensive pillaging.
Though there had been vandalism and theft before, the National Transport Union (UNTU) has said that the agency's failure to put in place contingency security plans after cancelling security contracts in November last year exacerbated the situation.
"Some of the enabling points that make it possible for (criminals) to have a holiday and honeymoon here at Prasa, is because of our decisions, it is because of our ineptness in terms of running this company of state," the minister said while unveiling government's integrated Prasa security plan.
This plan is meant to be a concerted approach in partnership with the police, intelligence services, justice department as well as the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA).
He said these decisions related to the security of Prasa's assets, as the security contracts were cancelled after they were found to be irregular by the Public Protector and the Auditor-General.
"It meant that if we had to take a decision against those companies, we needed to have a contingency plan to protect the network," Mbalula said.
The minister shared no operational details about the "intelligence-driven" plan, but it includes the newly recruited 3,100 in-house protection officers and police deployed in hotspots. He said they were confronted daily with pictures of the extensively damaged infrastructure, but they were confident that this will soon be a thing of the past.
General views of the George Goch Station, 10 September 2020, as it experiences rampant theft of cables and steel surrounding the train railway network. Picture: Michel Bega
The minister said they now had people directly accountable to Prasa, who they will be to monitor in terms of their capabilities and order them to action.
However, Steve Harris, UNTU General Secretary, said they were cautiously optimistic.
He said they had warned of Prasa's downfall due to a lack of political will to act against key stakeholders like the South African Police Service (SAPS) and National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) failing to deliver on their statutory mandates towards the rail industry.
"…citizens are the real owners of Prasa. It is commuters who has suffered the most in recent years. Prasa's modernisation projects are years behind due to vandalism and theft. There is money in the bank for these projects, but Prasa is unable to spend it," Harris said.
Sonja Carstens, the union's deputy general secretary, said that the breakdown of the passenger rail system was disastrous to the economy as people who could only afford to use trains to get to work had no choice but to stop working, as other modes of transport were too expensive.
"People cannot even afford to go look for work. Other modes of transport like taxis can ask what they want because there is no alternative. That is disastrous for the economy and our government keeps talking about building the economy, but they severed its spine by destroying the cheapest mode of transport for the poorest of the poor," she said.
Only four local lines are operational across the country, with no services in busiest lines such as Pretoria and Johannesburg, Pretoria and Mabopane as well as Cape Town's Central line, the busiest line serving the poor townships such as Bonteheuwel, Khayelitsha, Nyanga and Mitchells Plain shut.
Illegal scrap trade can't take all the blame
The remains of train tracks are seen near the old Benrose Station, 10 September 2020, in Johannesburg. Picture: Michel Be
There is no evidence of large-scale organised crime syndicates being responsible for exporting large volumes of stolen infrastructure from SA, the Metal Recyclers Association of SA (MRA) has said.
According to the association, perhaps the problem was being "over-exaggerated" to deflect attention from state owned enterprises' responsibilities to protect their assets.
"Without diminishing the problem, which is certainly real, perhaps we should consider whether the problem is being over-exaggerated to deflect attention from SOE's responsibilities relating to protecting their assets," the association said in a statement.
According to MRA, the most efficient way for someone to become proficient in this activity, would be for them to immediately melt the stolen metal into ingot to avoid identification, but this would require complicated equipment.
The association said it was unlikely that an established company would knowingly engage in such activities, but transport minister Fikile Mbalula said there was definitely an international syndicate behind the harvesting of rail infrastructure. He said copper cables stripped from the Passenger Rail Agency of SA (Prasa) infrastructure was melted in backyard township smelters, then shipped to Asian markets via Mozambique.
The minister said for the security plan to be effective, they would have to look into the metal and scrap dealers as they provided a market for stolen public property.
According to MRA, much of SA's stolen copper and aluminium conductors were used for the purpose of illegal electricity connections.
The association is adamant that whilst it may well be true that some stolen infrastructure may inadvertently become blended in to the legitimate scrap metal stream, the local recycling industry was formalised, well organised, and it was unlikely owners would risk their reputations and livelihoods through illicit trading of relatively small quantities of stolen goods.
"Theft of metal infrastructure is a problem for most of the industrialised world, however it is important to keep the extent of the problem in perspective as the quantity of metal stolen, including in SA, is relatively small compared with the legitimate ("green") metal recycling industry, presently estimated at some 3 million tons PA," MRA said.
According to MRA, its members were provided with alerts of stolen materials to help authorities and were periodically educated on frequently stolen material.
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