#UniteBehind’s seven-year push for accountability at PRASA

The activist group is fighting legal battles to bring those responsible for the collapse of railway services to book

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Photo of train timetable

A sign shows numerous delayed train at Langa station in 2019. Archive photo: Ashraf Hendricks

  • Rail activist group #UniteBehind has been challenging corruption at the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (PRASA) since 2017.
  • Its founder, Zackie Achmat, says they will continue to fight for accountability and reform at PRASA.
  • The group is currently fighting several legal battles over large-scale corruption and mismanagement at the state-owned railway.

In 2017, the rail activist group #UniteBehind began challenging corruption at PRASA. Seven years later the organisation’s founder Zackie Achmat says they will continue fighting for accountability for the destruction of the passenger rail service.

#UniteBehind is currently fighting several legal battles with various people and institutions accused of having a role in large-scale corruption and mismanagement at the state-owned railway that resulted in the collapse of services.

This is a summary of where things currently stand.

Sfiso Buthelezi

Sfiso Buthelezi served as the chair of PRASA’s board from 2009 to 2014. #UniteBehind accuses him of enabling and profiting from corrupt contracts, including the infamous tall-trains Swifambo contract, during his tenure as board chair. In late 2022, #UniteBehind laid official complaints against six ANC MPs, including Buthelezi, accusing them of facilitating PRASA‘s collapse.

In April 2023 #UniteBehind took Parliament’s ethics committee to court for failing to act on the complaints.

Achmat said that Parliament responded to the complaints by saying it could not investigate allegations of corruption which took place outside of Buthelezi’s tenure as an MP. This action against the ethics committee also includes other complaints that Parliament dismissed on similar grounds, including against former transport Minister Fikile Mbalula, former Minister of Mineral resources Mosebenzi Zwane and Dikeledi Magadzi who was former head of Parliament’s transport committee.

#UniteBehind are not taking Parliament’s decision to dismiss the Buthelezi complaint on review, but are reviewing the decisions to dismiss the complaints against Mbalula, Zwane, and Magadzi.

Buthelezi is also suing #UniteBehind and Achmat for defamation, demanding R5-million in damages. Achmat accused Buthelezi of profiting from corrupt contracts during a radio interview last year. “We might bring an application to have it struck from the roll because it’s an abuse of the court process,” Achmat said.

In the application, Buthelezi argues that Achmat’s statements were untrue and defamatory, pointing out that he has not been found guilty in any court of law.

Dipuo Peters

In 2023, #UniteBehind lodged complaints with Parliament about the conduct of ANC MP Dipuo Peters, who was Minister of Transport from 2013 to 2017. Peters is currently the Deputy Minister of Small Business Development.

Peters was accused of state capture breaches, including dismissing the board headed by Popo Molefe after it uncovered R14-billion in irregular expenditure, using PRASA buses for ANC events without ensuring payment, and failing to appoint a CEO when required.

In October 2023, Parliament’s Joint Committee on Ethics and Members’ Interests found that Peters had breached the Code of Conduct while she was Minister of Transport. Peters was sanctioned and suspended for one term.

She challenged this decision by filing an urgent application in the Western Cape High Court in January. Her application was dismissed with costs.

Achmat said the decision to dismiss Peters’ application and uphold her suspension was a milestone. “It speaks to accountability and justice for the people who use trains and rely on them … and for the people who are always late for work as a consequence of the trains not being maintained.”

Although he welcomed the court’s decision to uphold Peters’ suspension, Achmat said it was inadequate on its own. Earlier this month, #UniteBehind sent an urgent letter to President Cyril Ramaphosa requesting that he fire Peters. The president has been given until 20 February 2024 to make this decision.

Peters continues to deny wrongdoing and argues that the decision to suspend her from Parliament was irrational and unconstitutional.

Judge Nana Makhubele

In January 2019 #UniteBehind laid a complaint with the Judicial Services Commission (JSC) about the conduct of Judge Nana Makhubele. The activist group accused Makhubele of breaching the separation of powers principle by being appointed a judge while being on the PRASA interim board. #UniteBehind also accuses her of halting criminal and civil proceedings against companies and politicians accused of corruption at PRASA.

She is facing a further complaint that while at PRASA, she furthered the interests of state-capture-implicated contractor Siyaya, by entering into a “secret” settlement agreement with it, sidelining her internal legal team.

Makhubele’s tribunal has been going on for over two years, delayed by a disagreement over the footing of her legal bills. During the last sessions, Makhubele denied that she had aided and abetted state capture at PRASA while she was chair of the interim board. She also denied branding those who testified against her, including her boss Gauteng Judge President Dunstan Mlambo, as liars.

The hearing will continue on 22 and 23 February.

Rail devolution

In October 2023 #UniteBehind launched a court bid to compel PRASA and Transport Minister Sindiswe Chikunga to enter into a service-level plan with the City of Cape Town. This plan would describe how PRASA and the City of Cape Town will develop safe, affordable and reliable rail service in the province under the Land Transport Act.

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 the plan is implemented.

#UniteBehind said a service level plan would be the first step in devolving some railway powers and functions to the City. Cape Town Mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis has also welcomed #UniteBehind’s litigation.

Achmat says PRASA and Chikunga have been using delay tactics to stop the case from going to court, but #UniteBehind is pushing for the matter to be heard in court this year.

Chikunga has told the media that “there are conditions” to rail devolution that still need to be ironed out before implementation.

Defending the Zondo Report

In late 2022, five PRASA officials implicated in the Zondo Report Part 5 Volume 2, filed papers to review the report’s findings. This includes former board chair Sfiso Buthelezi, former CEO Lucky Montana, and three former board members: Nkosinathi Khena, Mmatebogo Nkoenyane and Bridgette Gasa. The three board members were involved in approving the irregular ‘tall-trains’ Swifambo bid in 2012.

Buthelezi deposed the founding affidavit for the PRASA officials’ case, where he argued that PRASA was functioning properly while they were at the helm.

Achmat says #UniteBehind has applied to join the case on behalf of the Zondo Commission.

In Achmat’s founding affidavit, he states that the “legitimacy and enforceability of any of the Commission’s findings” would be threatened if the former PRASA officials’ attempt to review the report’s findings were successful.

Correction on 2024-02-20 12:43

The story initially stated #UniteBehind were reviewing Parliament's decision not to dismiss complaints against former PRASA board chair Sfiso Buthelezi. This is not the case. The text has been amended.

TOPICS:  Prasa / Metrorail

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Write a letter in response to this article


Dear Editor

I live in Pietermaritzburg,KZN, and Sanral is busy upgrading the road between Cato Ridge and Pietermaritzburg. My domestic worker who is a tremendous help to me lives in the Valley of a Thousand Hills area, so we give her a lift to Cato Ridge, where she gets her taxi. Besides this road being congested with trucks continuously (because the railways have been absolutely neglected over many years); when I drop her off at Cato Ridge the station looks non-operational and the whole area is literally rusting and rotting away. This is terribly sad considering it was a robust operational service to the community at one stage; and share mismanagement has brought it almost to a ruin. If this area is a reflection of our railway system, we as a country and this government have totally ignored the needs of the people in communities that used to use it; and are no longer afforded the opportunity due to bad governance and mismanagement

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