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South Africa

OPINIONISTA: Prasa remains in a critical state, but the War Room is yielding results

Turning around an entity as massive as Prasa requires a multi-pronged approach where the various elements of the strategy converge at a particular point. The War Room is one of these elements. When it comes to assessing results, it is time that cynics in the media examined the numbers instead of choosing a narrative that fits their sensational posturing.

Last week we visited the Prasa War Room to take stock of the progress towards the realisation of its mandate. Since its inception, the director-general of the department, Alec Moemi, has worked closely with the management and board of Prasa to direct the effort and meticulously unravel the blockages that hinder progress.

The process has been painstaking and has met serious resistance from those who continue to benefit from the state of chaos and paralysis that has characterised the public entity in recent years. When I initiated this intervention, I was under no illusion about the magnitude of the task at hand. Turning around an entity as massive as Prasa requires a multi-pronged approach where the various elements of the strategy converge at a particular point. The War Room is one of these elements. The Daily Maverick in its caricature of my intervention misses this point terribly and conflates issues that are mutually exclusive.

The challenges at Prasa have nothing to do with the soundness of its long-term strategy. In fact, this has been given a nod by external firms that have reviewed it. The problem rather, is failure to implement the strategy and absence of able and capable leadership. Over the years, the company has haemorrhaged critical capacity as a consequence of weak leadership and dysfunctional management. This resulted in a knock-on effect on the ability of the company to deliver on its mandate and to effectively manage the R172-billion fleet renewal project. This is evidenced by the successive adverse audit opinions of the auditor-general and Prasa’s inability to spend billions of its capital budget over the last few years.

The War Room is a short-term intervention aimed at restoring the service offering to levels where the system achieves acceptable levels of reliability and predictability. As ambitious as the targets of the War Room appear, they are not a pipe dream. In fact, these are targets that Prasa was able to meet with ease only five years ago.

The Prasa intervention is a combination of the sustained and the changed agenda. It is imperative that we sustain acceptable levels of service with the current system, while we ramp up modernisation of the commuter rail environment and the introduction of new trains and upgraded infrastructure. The War Room is about sustaining the current system in an aggressive way that is responsive to the needs of those who use passenger rail for their livelihood.

When we took stock of the progress made in the 14 weeks of the War Room, we paid close attention to the numbers. Indeed, the numbers tell us that despite a slow start, the War Room is yielding results. The metrics we use to measure the performance of the system enable us to address the underlying issues that constrain progress. One of these has been the chronic delay in the finalisation of the award of the General Overhaul contract, which enables Prasa to return coaches to service at faster turn-around times by using a number of contractors who have work parcels distributed among them. Another binding constraint has been the availability of components and spares through an appropriate contract. Progress has been made in addressing the challenges that gave rise to the stalling in the award of these contracts.

Others choose to be cynical rather than examine the numbers and test those numbers against the actual service. They choose a narrative that fits their sensational posture about security guards protesting at Prasa facilities rather than the actual count of trains in service, monitoring on-time arrival, verifying the number of occurrences and Prasa’s compliance with the Railway Safety Regulator’s directives. In our pursuit for sensational headlines, we must always uphold the principle of factual reporting and desist from peddling untruths, whether by default or by design.

Since the inception of the War Room, Metrorail’s on-time performance has improved. The morning peak at the start of the War Room was 49% and has now increased to 60%. The afternoon peak, on the other hand, increased from 55% to 63%. Related to this has been the hard work put in reducing the volume of the network affected by speed restrictions. We have successfully reduced this by 16% where 167km of the network was affected, which has now reduced to 142 km.

While we applaud the progress being made through the War Room interventions, we are under no illusion about the fact that in the broader scheme of thing, Prasa remains in a critical state. We have prioritised the appointment of a permanent board at Prasa and this process is nearing completion. This will be immediately followed by the appointment of a permanent group chief executive and chief executives of its various divisions and subsidiaries.

Meanwhile, the process of filling critical vacancies is proceeding with the appointment of a group CFO, group chief procurement officer and a group human capital management executive in the last month. Stabilising operations without full-time leadership both at board and management levels is no different from attempting to fill a leaking bucket.

The state of the company remains dire as evidenced by the findings of the auditor-general, but the effort by the hard-working men and women at the coalface of service provision cannot be dismissed as insignificant. Indeed, the wheels are turning. While the progress is not as fast as we would like, denying that there is progress is simply burying one’s head in the sand.

Over the past four years, Prasa has failed to spend R18-billion of its capital budget earmarked for rolling out new and upgraded infrastructure as part of its modernisation drive and rolling out of the fleet renewal project. The implications of this is the delay in the deployment of new trains that are currently being manufactured in Nigel. The knock-on impact of this situation has far-reaching implications both for the fiscus and for the successful deployment of new trains across the country. At the heart of this is the reality that over the last few years Prasa has lost critical capacity that enabled it to manage its capital programme through the Enterprise Project Management Office (EPMO). Here we are, R18-billion later, a rolling stock fleet renewal project a few years behind schedule, what is to be done?

The prospects of enlisting private sector support to help Prasa rebuild its capacity to manage capital projects, while simultaneously accelerating implementation of projects stalled in the pipeline is tempting. However, mobilising such capacity at short notice is a cumbersome undertaking which will come at a huge cost. On the other hand, organs of state such as Sanral, Acsa and the Development Bank of Southern Africa have a proven track record in successfully managing a portfolio of capital projects worth billions. Why then reinvent the wheel when such capacity exists within the state?

It is on this basis that Prasa is seeking approval to enlist the services of the DBSA, both from myself as a shareholder minister and the minister of finance as provided for in law. The matter is receiving the attention of the National Treasury and we will move with speed in rebuilding Prasa’s capacity to manage its own capital projects once such approval has been granted. Conspiracy theories must never be used as an excuse to paralyse decision-making unless prima facie evidence of mala fide in the DBSA transaction is brought forward and tested by relevant authorities.

While the journey towards building a Prasa that is able to deliver a passenger rail system responsive to the needs of the citizenry continues, we are emboldened in the knowledge that the light at the end of the tunnel is the rays of sunshine signalling a new dawn. DM