Prasa: what a way to run a railroad

21 April 2019 - 00:11 By CHRIS BARRON

Transport minister Blade Nzimande says he's going to appoint a task team to find out why turnaround strategies at the Passenger Rail Agency of SA (Prasa) have failed. But interim board chair Khanyisile Kweyama says it's no mystery.
"You may have very nice strategies but if you don't have the management to implement them, you have a problem. Skills are a big problem at Prasa."
There's a disastrous gap in key areas such as rail. "Prasa is about rail, and the rail skills have left over the years," Kweyama says.
Incompetent executives and managers were appointed to run the rail service for years, and they didn't have a clue. They still don't.
The board's most important job now is finding those who do, she says.
"We've advertised almost the full exco [executive committee] because we don't have the right people in place. We need skills, people who understand what we are trying to deliver," Kweyama says.
Other key positions such as CEO rail and CEO engineering still need to be advertised.
"Anomalies in the system" that allowed bizarre appointments over the years need to be fixed, she says. "We need no reminding of fake engineer Dr Daniel Mtimkulu."
Before being unmasked, Mtimkulu was Prasa's chief engineer, in charge of a predictably disastrous R3.2bn locomotive project.
"He did nothing but ensure there was complete incompetence in the engineering space," Kweyama says.
Four years later, however, and there has still been no permanent replacement "with the proper skills to run that component".
Meanwhile, Nzimande has given her board six months to reduce train cancellations by 60% and delays by 41%.
As Kweyama says, this is all about maintenance and contract performance. "Work on the maintenance regime has begun and contract performance is being looked at."
But even with competent people in charge, which she says is not yet the case, don't expect miracles. "Prasa can't be fixed in six months, not even a year."
Kweyama says the board, which was appointed a year ago, can't be blamed for leaving it so long to advertise these key positions.
Prasa was in such a mess when the new board members took over that they had to start from scratch, she says. "If I could tell you some of the nightmares we've gone through."
They had to draw up proper job profiles because there weren't any, but found that the human resources department wasn't up to it. They're now looking for a permanent head of HR.
"These things are so basic in another organisation, but here they were not. People were just loafing around."
The board, which like everyone else at Prasa, including Kweyama herself, is "acting", appointed former eThekwini city manager Sibusiso Sithole as the CEO to drive its turnaround strategy, though he had no rail experience.
His post is now also being advertised after he resigned in February. "He was not 100% fit for purpose," Kweyama says. "He was not able to deliver the turnaround strategy."
The board will be more careful about future appointments, she says, but acknowledges that finding suitably qualified people prepared to join Prasa will be difficult.
"Our selling point is that now there is a board that is interested in fixing Prasa. Previous boards may not have given that comfort."
Nzimande's task team will be made up of experts from academia and professional bodies like the institute of engineering.
Kweyama does not see the appointment of the task team, which will sit for two months and be under the direction of the department of transport, as a vote of no confidence in her board.
"We cannot sit at Prasa every day and do the kind of diagnostic work which the task team will be doing. They will do a deep dive into Prasa and tell us how things should work so that we have results."
The idea is that their "diagnostic" will be implemented by the new executive team, when there is one.
The appointment of a task team formed part of the turnaround strategy her board presented to the minister months ago.
"We would have made much more progress if the task team were appointed earlier," she says. She can't comment on why it wasn't.
Kweyama says the board has had its hands full "putting out so many fires and acting against the corruption identified many years ago by public protector Thuli Madonsela".
Prasa executives and managers have been dismissed and suspended, and disciplinary processes are ongoing, she says. "People are starting to see that we are not playing."
Nzimande has praised her board for "closing the ATM".
"People who have been using the ATM now know that things have changed."But Kweyama still gets calls from suppliers wanting to meet her. She tells them "absolutely not", she says. "I have nothing to discuss with service providers."Their brazenness provides a horrifying insight into what has been going on at Prasa for so many years, she says."People knew they could go to a chair, a board, an executive. That gate has been closed. People still demand that they be paid. When we investigate we see we don't owe them anything. We have closed that tap as well."The new culture has not yet permeated throughout the organisation, "but at board level we don't have people that encourage that".No-one named in the public protector's report has been jailed. But Prasa has begun litigation against Siyangena Technologies, alleged to have scored billions of rands in fraudulent contracts. Former Prasa CEO Lucky Montana and other officials have been asked to submit affidavits.Kweyama says Prasa has been "waiting for the Hawks and National Prosecuting Authority to do their job", but has been working "much closer with the current leadership" of these institutions.She has met new NPA boss Shamila Batohi, "who has assured us Prasa is one of their priority investigations. We're charting a way forward to ensure the cases are brought to court as speedily as possible."She's hoping "to recover the billions that we have lost", but realises the longer it takes the less they're likely to recover."It's unfortunate that almost 10 years later we have not recovered anything."

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