* This article has been updated.
Durban - The recently appointed CEO Zolani Kgosietsile Matthews at the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) has big plans to turn the ailing state-owned entity around.
Matthews was appointed in February.
He on Wednesday maintained that his main aim was to rebuild and repair the organisation following years of mismanagement.
Prasa has had six acting chief executives since Lucky Montana’s departure in 2015 and has been mired in controversy, with damning evidence led at the Zondo commission, where allegations of corruption have swirled in the past months.
Matthews appeared on a local radio station on Wednesday morning where he outlined his plans to save the once corruption-riddled entity.
He explained that the “legacy” issues left behind by his predecessors and years of state capture were “complex” and “multi-faceted”, and a solid plan was needed to ensure Prasa did not repeat its cloudy past.
One of the major issues, Matthews said, was that Prasa was tangled in extensive litigation.
“We need to address those issues, and where possible, to put those issues to bed if we can. In other cases, I think we will need to take those issues to their logical conclusion to the satisfaction of the company so that we don’t have a recurrence of the same problem,” he said.
Matthews had taken over the entity at a time when vacancies remained unfilled and a number of key positions were occupied only in an acting capacity.
He said part of the major challenge at Prasa was the instability that was caused by the acting positions, which he was trying to remove and reduce.
“In this way, we can measure performance in a much more precise manner, rather than what has developed into a very haphazard way of management,” he said.
He said although some matters were still subject to litigation, there were other cases that they have settled.
Matthews said they found that some employees were not meeting the necessary standards, and they have dealt with those cases.
For those who were brought back to Prasa, Matthews said if there was a question mark around their capabilities, “we tie them to very clear performance agreements and expectations”.
The entity would also embark on a robust initiative to sniff out ghost employees and employees who took advantage of the Covid-19 pandemic to stay at home and avoid work.
Matthews said that based on their internal investigations, there was evidence that such employees were on their payroll.
The Covid-19 pandemic had not only given some employees a loophole to take advantage of Prasa, but it also left the entity in a precarious position financially.
Matthews said they had to reduce their operating lines across the country, and while their employees were being paid, “we essentially have to rob Peter to pay Paul”.
“We shouldn’t do that, but at the same time, give our own historic debts, it becomes a function of who do we pay first, and we don’t want to let down our employees,” Matthews said.
Prasa and Metrorail have been under immense pressure to restore normal train schedules across the country after cables were stolen and infrastructure destroyed along various corridors.
Matthews said they were focused on restoring the troubled Mabopane-Pretoria railway network.
Only a few people had managed to use the trains since the infrastructure was vandalised and stolen before and during the level 5 lockdown last year.
Matthews said that before opening the rail network, there was a desperate need to deal with the massive security concerns.
“It is a really sophisticated attempt to degrade and destroy the rail network so that it cannot be operationalised. We have to put a lot of emphasis on restoring security and our security capacity. It doesn’t make sense as a business if we invest that kind of capital and don’t actually provide adequate security to ensure the lines are protected,” he said.
Although the State Security Agency and SA Police Service were on board to provide security, Matthews said there was a need for a more active and enhanced relationship and engagement with the state.
He said they were looking at the reintroduction of the railway police.
In a 2013 deal, Swifambo Rails was awarded a R3.5 billion contract for the procurement of locomotives. Prasa paid R2.6bn of that, but only 13 of the 88 locomotives were delivered, and they were too tall for local infrastructure.
Matthews said after discussions with the new company that bought out the previous company that manufactured the trains, they have agreed that the outstanding locomotives would be modified subject to Prasa’s specifications.
* This article has been updated to reflect that Prasa was a vehicle for state capture funds. The earlier version was inadvertently edited in a manner that appeared to implicate Zolani Matthews. IOL apologises for the error.