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The ‘collapse’ of SA’s rail network has it consequences

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Graphic: Timothy Alexander / African News Agency (ANA)

By Professor Bonke Dumisa

I always resist and even discourage negative comparisons between what worked well during the apartheid era and what just does not work or has even collapsed in the post-apartheid era. I avoid doing this because it is irritating to hear the pro-apartheid apologists gloating about anything which was better during apartheid days.

Having said this, I must concede that the two vital areas where the post-apartheid South African government has dropped the ball are maintaining law and order and rail transport. I grew up in uMlazi township where we always used the local train system. We used it to go almost everywhere because it was cheap and safe.

I grudgingly concede that the presence of the South African Railways Police kept the local trains safe to such an extent I continued using the train when going to work for at least three more years after buying my own car in October 1982.

Unfortunately, the democracy we all fought hard for and finally got in 1994, had its own unintended consequences. The state became less willing to use the police to maintain law and order, and; when the South African Railways Police were removed, the trains became less safe.

People became more daring in committing petty and serious crimes and we started seeing members of the public invading railway properties. Many people deliberately built their properties directly over railway tracks.

This made it easier for the copper thieves to freely steal overhead cables and; in some instances, they even cut the railway tracks with impunity. The problem for Transnet has always been that there is a provision in the Prevention of Illegal Eviction Act that land invaders exploit when they deliberately invade railway properties.

The provision says that when people are removed from private land they have illegally invaded, those who evict them must provide them with alternative accommodation.

The level of lawlessness in South Africa has made it easier for criminal syndicates to steal copper from railway properties and the South African government seems helpless to effectively deal with those who run the “scrapyards” where railway copper and even rail tracks are openly stored there.

On the other hand, the rise in the militancy of the trade unions in the railway industry has emboldened those who engage in wrongdoing – including the theft of customer goods – knowing that it is no longer easy to dismiss employees even for obvious wrongdoing.

There is continuous industrial strife at Transnet and its sister entities, just like what is happening throughout the country as the trade unions demand salary increases for workers of more than 12% from entities that are struggling to break even. These many strikes have made it a risky decision to use rail instead of the road to deliver goods.

It is the combination of all the above factors which has given rise to almost all the businesses, from agricultural produce farmers, the manufacturers of products including the distribution of cars, now all using road transport.

There are very few products that are still being delivered by rail. Driving on most major national, provincial, regional and local roads is a serious hazard these days. The heavy trucks are destroying the roads; hence all the potholes.

Driving alongside all these trucks whose drivers are always chasing delivery and collection deadlines increases the rates of accidents on the roads. This has resulted in local communities in some areas saying “enough is enough” and want to ban these heavy vehicles from driving in their areas.

It is unfortunate that some people naively say there must be more effort made to transport most goods by rail to reduce the burden on our road networks. Let’s stop being pretentious about this; not many sane business owners will move their goods away from the road networks back to rail.

Transnet and its sister entities are currently unable to deliver the required service capacity due to all the reasons I cited. The railway networks are not going to be effective as long as the high level of lawlessness continues to prevail in South Africa.

There may be hope if the SAPS can show its serious intention by arresting the copper thieves and closing down all the “scrapyards” with the same vigour as the Hawks arresting and confiscating hundreds of illegal firearms from the illegal miners, maybe people will reconsider using the rail networks. But for now, forget it, even the coal miners are shunning rail networks.

Dumisa is an independent economic analyst.