Prasa’s new CEO has a daunting task

Jacques Moolman, president of the Cape Chamber of Commerce and Industry

Zolani Matthews, the latest chief executive of the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) faces a task as daunting as that faced by Hercules.

Scholars of classical mythology will recall that Hercules was the mythical strong man ordered to clean enormous heaps of manure from the Royal Augean Stables which held 3 000 oxen, and which had not been cleaned for 30 years.

Hercules eventually diverted a river to wash them clean. Mr Mathews does not have such a quick-fix option. But no doubt fixing Prasa needs something just as heroic as the exertions of Hercules.

Vandalism of rail infrastructure from copper cable to the steel rail lines is the least of it. Comprising the metaphorical ordure are land invasions of the tracks themselves; the flourishing business of supplying shack-building materials and claiming rent from the occupants on land they do not own is another twist in the anarchic spiral; and, not to forget, the gargantuan mess within the structures of Prasa itself – politely described as a “lack of capacity” instead of the “hotbed of corruption” it has become.

Parliament’s transport oversight committee told Mr Mathews that it was “No time for velvet gloves” – to which every employer in the private sector in Cape Town can only respond with hearty approval.

Leaving aside the elephant in the room that is the determination of sundry taxi operators to ensure that the commuter rail system never recovers sufficiently to put a dent in the windfall profits they have enjoyed since the Prasa implosion, there is the very real doubt that there is anyone left within Prasa capable of doing what needs to be done.

Take solving the simple problem of the graffiti that adorns so many carriages that limp out along the southern peninsula line to Simon’s Town. This is not only one of the best scenic routes of any railway, but it also once relieved the city streets of thousands of motor cars when office commuters could rely on its pinpoint timetable.

Today, commuters have abandoned the railway line. It has become unsafe and unreliable – quite apart from being filthy and smelly much of the time. It used to be safe for children. Not anymore.

But back to the graffiti problem. Observers note that these artistic creations are often multi-coloured and appear to be applied by spray guns that require electricity-driven compressors.

They also note that the coverage of the carriages is almost total. Ergo, many litres of paint in many colours are needed, plus an uninterrupted electricity supply, many brushes, paint pots, and (presuming that these artists work at night) floodlights by which to work.

This considerable endeavour must take more than an hour, not including setting up the scaffolding needed.

While all this is going on, where are the security guards? Do they exist? We know they are paid, but do they patrol the marshalling yards at night? Does no one managing these yards find it odd that these major artworks can be done without being discovered?

So many mysteries, but typical of the Alice in Wonderland world where Prasa management lives.

Then there is the mystery of how it is that once decorated by the spray gun artists, the afflicted carriages remain like that forever? Perhaps the answer is that no one cares.

So, while everyone must hope that the new CEO of Prasa manages to turn around this sinking ship, fill all its obvious holes, repel the pirates, and get it safely into a dry dock to be refurbished, there is a chance for a quick win: fix the graffiti on the running trains. Keep them spic and span and safe as they once were.

It may seem a small thing, but as a famous New York mayor discovered when making it a priority to fix every broken pane of glass in the city, small things can have an amazing effect.

Who knows? It might even raise Prasa staff morale. That can only be a good start to fixing the really big things like getting the central line operational. Granted there is the opposition of the taxi operators to be faced, but that problem too could be fixed by some lateral thinking.

The very best of luck, Mr Matthews.