Popo Molefe explains perils of Prasa locomotive deal, maintains trains were ‘too tall’

Popo Molefe explains perils of Prasa locomotive deal, maintains trains were ‘too tall’

Popo Molefe, former Prasa board chairperson, at the State Capture Commission.

Popo Molefe, former Prasa board chairperson, at the State Capture Commission.

Lubabalo Lesolle/Gallo Images

  • Former Passenger Rail Agency of SA board chair Popo Molefe said the procurement of locomotives at the entity was dogged with gaps in transparency.
  • Molefe told the State Capture Commission he knew the locomotives were too tall based on advice that Prasa received from Transnet Freight Rail.
  • Molefe was responding to an affidavit from another former Prasa chair, Sfiso Buthelezi, and evidence from former Prasa group CEO Lucky Montana.

Former chair of the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) board Popo Molefe told the Judicial Inquiry into State Capture that the irregular procurement of locomotive at the entity was dogged with gaps in integrity and transparency.

Molefe appeared before the commission on Thursday morning after the inquiry took a week-long break from taking oral evidence. He spent much of the hearing responding to an affidavit by another former Prasa chair, Sfiso Buthelezi, on the locomotive deal.

The R2.3 billion procurement of the “tall trains” is infamous as a colossal misstep in Prasa’s recent history. The Special Investigating Unit (SIU) told Parliament that the rail agency stood to recover over R60 million from the ill-fated procurement at best, due to the liquidation of Swifambo, which was given the tender.

Swifambo got more than R3.5 billion in contracts from Prasa before it emerged that the company did not meet the requirements to stand as a service provider and the company was linked to a number of individuals in Prasa, including Buthelezi, according to a report by Crowe Forensics SA.

Commission chair Raymond Zondo asked Molefe about the remarks in Buthelezi’s affidavit and evidence from former Prasa group CEO Lucky Montana, who denied that the locomotives procured in the deal were too tall to be used on South Africa’s rail network.

Molefe told Zondo that he was able to confirm that the locomotives were indeed too tall to be used, as per advice that Prasa was provided by Transnet Freight Rail (TFR).

“I cannot say anything to claims that the locomotive were transported from Cape Town to Johannesburg. These locomotives were found to be unfit for purpose. We were given advice by TFR that they were not in line with rail regulations and safety standards,” said Molefe.

Evidence leader Advocate Vas Soni asked Molefe to clarify if this stipulation had to do with a regulation or if it was a matter of ensuring safety in the use of the locomotive.

“I cannot give the direct numbers, but the came at a height that was above 4.9m high. Prasa attempted to adjust them, and they reached a point where they could only reduce them to 4m and some centimetres, and … said they could not do anything beyond that,” Molefe said.

Molefe said he would be happy to respond to evidence from Montana on the matter. He said the issues raised by TFR about the height of the locomotive were genuine safety concerns.

“If the pantograph was too close to the electric light, there was always a chance that the locomotive could burn. The fact that they managed to get to Gauteng does not mean that they were fit for purpose,” he said.

Zondo asked Molefe if the locomotives in question could practically be used on the entire South African rail work as Montana suggested.

“There are regulations. We are also considering safety positions stated by the owner of the rail network as Transnet. Whoever uses that network is required to comply with the rail network owners regulations,” Molefe explained.

Molefe said in a meeting that considers this matter, the committee that Buthelezi had been chairing had never considered the issue of probity.

“The project indeed was part of the modernisation, so it was urgent. It does not divert from the fact that the board needed probity and was expected to approve this without that probity. So, I would agree with Buthelezi on the count that it was urgent,” he said.

Earlier on Thursday morning, the commission heard from Crowe Forensics SA director Mark Sacks on his report into Prasa.

Sacks’ report says the company Sebenza got millions from Swifambo under Buthelezi’s watch as Prasa chair and that he did not declare and disclose his interest in Macana Investment, which was linked to Sebenza.

After Zondo wrapped up the hearing for the day at noon, Molefe gave his farewell and quipped: “Chairman, you shouldn’t be too nice to some witnesses.”

In a somewhat veiled reference to the controversy surrounding former president Jacob Zuma’s insistence that Zondo was a biased judge over his own refusal to subject himself to the inquiry, Zondo said people commenting on his objectivity comes with the territory of chairing such a commission.

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