#UniteBehind takes PRASA and transport minister to court

The organisation argues the state has a statutory and constitutional duty to devolve rail to the City of Cape Town

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#UniteBehind members Joe Mayson, Zuki Vuka, Zackie Achmat, Lunga George at a press conference in Cape Town on Wednesday. Photo: Mary-Anne Gontsana

  • Activist organisation #UniteBehind wants the Cape High Court for an order compelling the transport minister and PRASA to develop a service level plan with the City of Cape Town.
  • A service level plan would be the first step toward fixing the rail system in the city, and ultimately devolving rail to the municipality.
  • The organisation argues that despite the Land Transport Act and the Constitution compelling the development of a service level plan, PRASA and the transport minister have obstructed its development.
  • Mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis welcomed #UniteBehind’s litigation.

The Minister of Transport and PRASA are being taken to court by civil society organisation #UniteBehind. The organisation wants the court to compel PRASA to enter a service level plan with the City of Cape Town. A legally enforceable service level plan, according to #UniteBehind, would include joint planning between PRASA and the City including the setting of targets and outcomes. PRASA would manage and operate the commuter rail service while the City would fulfil its legal oversight obligations such as scrutinising contracts and ensuring that the plan is implemented.

In the notice of motion filed at the Western Cape High Court on 5 October on a semi-urgent basis, #UniteBehind argue that the Land Transport Act and the Constitution compel the minister and PRASA to finalise a service level plan with the City of Cape Town, which is listed as a third respondent.

The plan, according to the organisation, must describe how the City, with help from transport minister Sindiswe Chikunga, “will progressively achieve a safe, reliable, affordable, efficient and quality municipal public transport system with the use of railway”.

The reason this is required, argues the organisation, is because PRASA, overseen by the minister, is not only compelled to do so by the Land Transport Act, but has failed to maintain and protect the rail system, resulting in billions of rands in losses to the South African economy.

Instead of assisting in creating a service level plan leading to the devolution of the rail service to the City, #UniteBehind argues PRASA and the transport minister have “compromised and impeded” the City’s “ability and rights to exercise its powers and perform its functions” when it comes to managing public transport in Cape Town.

The founding affidavit is by #UniteBehind co-founder and director Zackie Achmat. He argues that citizens’ constitutional right to a “safe, reliable, affordable, efficient and quality public transport system” has not been upheld.

Economic impact

In his affidavit Achmat presents figures from the most recent National Household Travel Survey which shows the number of South African workers who used rail as a means of transport dropped from 13% in 2013 to 3% by January 2020.

He does not refer to the Stats SA Land Transport Survey in his affidavit, but via The Outlier, the survey shows passenger rail journeys in South Africa declined from 52-million per month in January 2008, to just 3-million per month in July 2023.

Achmat states that in the Western Cape the number of train passenger trips dropped by 84% between 2013 and 2020, while taxi passenger trips increased by 29% over the same period. Meanwhile the cost of travelling by train is about a third of the average cost of travelling by taxi.

“That alternative private transport has so drastically displaced public rail commuting in the past decade, despite the extra costs, is a statistic of grave concern and one that demonstrates the terrible decay in the provisioning of rail commuter services by the state,” states Achmat.

“A failed train service means lost wages, lost school time, missed hospital appointments, and other severe disruptions and prejudices experienced by travellers.”

Evidence is presented in PRASA’s 2022/2025 Corporate Plan, that the rail agency is well aware of this.

The Corporate Plan states delays and trip cancellations caused by theft and vandalism of PRASA infrastructure and equipment affected tens of millions of passenger trips per year.

“On average, a 60-minute delay amounts to the loss of between 40-million and 60-million person hours … At a minimum hourly wage of R20/h (conservative estimate), if only one-third of workers experienced delays, this would amount to about R400-million per year in lost wages,” states PRASA’s Corporate Plan. Furthermore, the Corporate Plan calculates the direct cost of stolen or damaged infrastructure at about R6.4-billion.

Achmat argues it is the cost to the commuters, which he puts at between R4-billion and R5-billion per year, which “comprise the bulk of the overall cost to the economy”.

Devolving rail to the City

Achmat states that a service level plan is “the statutory starting point for the City’s exercise of its duty to administer municipal rail transport”.

He says that without it, the rail crisis in Cape Town cannot and will not be solved. The service level plan has to be effected in consultation with the City.

Achmat states the City has agreed to produce a service level plan in consultation with PRASA, but the transport minister and PRASA “have not come to the proverbial table”, which is why #UniteBehind approached the court.

Relief sought from the court

#UniteBehind wants the High Court to direct the transport minister and PRASA to conclude a service level plan with the City within 90 days of a court order. It asks that the plan provide details of how the City, assisted by the transport minister, will develop a safe, reliable, affordable, efficient, and quality rail service in Cape Town.

Further, #UniteBehind wants the court to order the transport minister and PRASA to report, every 30 days, what steps they have taken and the progress they have made to conclude the service level plan.

Mayor welcomes #UniteBehind’s litigation

In a press statement on Wednesday, Cape Town Mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis welcomed #UniteBehind’s litigation.

Hill-Lewis said after refusing to sign a Service Level Agreement with the City, PRASA “recently did an about-turn and resumed talks”, but welcomed the opportunity litigation would present “to air any outstanding issues PRASA may have”.

He said the overall goal was to devolve passenger rail to the City as soon as possible, and the City would keep pushing for that to happen. While a memorandum of understanding had been signed with PRASA in 2015, it was a non-binding agreement.

The City is also launching an intergovernmental dispute due to lack of government engagement to its request for a joint devolution working committee. Such a committee was “an important step towards our ultimate goal of the devolution of passenger rail to the City,” said Hill-Lewis.

Neither PRASA nor the transport ministry responded to questions on whether they would oppose #UniteBehind’s litigation. They have until 20 October to oppose the court action. After that they have 15 days to file opposing papers.

Correction on 2023-10-11 18:37

The first paragraph of the article was reworded after publication to more accurately reflect the relief sought by #UniteBehind.

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