A fierce battle rages, a clash of titans, as the fate of Transnet (or TFR, if you will) hangs in the balance. It’s a cauldron of intrigue, brewing like a wicked witch’s potion, threatening to spread its toxic tendrils across the entire nation. Deep within the core of this entity lies a treasure trove of unimaginable wealth, and like a pack of ravenous vultures, all manner of opportunists have descended upon it, eager to feast upon its spoils.

By Themba Khumalo

We are fully entitled to express our concerns and articulate our viewpoints regarding the decline of Transnet Freight Rail (TFR) with utmost passion and resolve, to the extent that our vocal cords may tire from the exertion.

The outrage and concerns expressed are justified considering the significant role of TFR as Transnet’s primary division, responsible for nearly half of the company’s total revenue.

That said, there is an outraged brigade that has targeted Siza Mzimela, the CEO of TFR, like a bullseye in their crosshairs. A superficial examination of the growing outrage suggests that she alone is to blame for the life-threatening harm suffered by TFR. The prevailing sentiment holds her accountable for wielding the weapon that caused the damage.

However, the reality, as I see it and as anyone interested can attest, is that there are numerous factors contributing to this situation. These include historical issues, past management failures, theft, vandalism, and the controversial locomotive deal. Unfortunately, the shareholder, which in this case is the government, has not taken sufficient steps to rectify the situation.

Not only does TFR require a collective effort to address its current state, but it is also crucial to convey certain truths to the shareholder, represented by Pravin Gordhan. The detrimental impact on the country is overwhelmingly significant. Transnet, through TFR, is becoming a major economic disaster. This is exacerbated by a shareholder that makes grand promises but lacks effective implementation.

The blame for TFR’s failures lies squarely on the shoulders of those who stroll through the hallowed halls of the Department of Public Enterprises, resembling sun-drenched sloths lazily basking in their indifference. Despite holding the power to swiftly intervene or address TFR management’s countless pleas regarding critical and meticulously recorded risks, they chose to remain inert, allowing the situation to spiral out of control.

Furthermore, the presence of opportunistic private investors, driven by their self-interest, further complicates the situation. There are no noble intentions to rescue TFR.

Critics argue that Mzimela’s demeanour and purported unwillingness to heed suggestions from the private sector, as proposed by the national crisis committee on logistics established by President Cyril Ramaphosa, are central to the issue at hand. These detractors contend that her alleged reluctance to consider these recommendations is hindering efforts to address the challenges faced by South Africa’s rail corridors.

These rail corridors are the lifeblood of South Africa’s trade, ensuring the smooth flow of imports and exports that sustain the nation’s agricultural, retail, mining, and automotive sectors. However, any hint of inefficiency in this intricate web of transportation poses a grave threat to the very heartbeat of our economy.

The argument put forth by those critical of Mzimela probably holds some validity; however, they appear to conveniently disregard the fact that the shareholder is willingly immersed in a state of incompetence… Perhaps it can also be argued that this behaviour is fuelled by a reckless abandon that defies all conventions.

Additionally, it is worth noting that there is a notable hesitance on the part of the shareholder to empower competent executives with the freedom to fulfil their responsibilities without undue interference driven by personal motives. As a result, the shareholder’s dedication to investing in a logistics organisation that was previously held in high regard seems to be deficient.

Difficulties Encountered By Transnet Freight Rail

For those who yearn for the unvarnished truth, it is of utmost importance to acknowledge the colossal obstacles that TFR is currently wrestling with. These trials necessitate the shareholder to bear a substantial weight to confront these urgent matters headfirst. We cannot persist in lambasting the executives who are left dangling due to the shareholder’s abhorrent state of apathetic reaction.

The lack of locomotives has been causing major financial setbacks for TFR. And as if that wasn’t enough, security concerns have been throwing some serious curveballs their way. We’re talking about rampant theft and vandalism that’s wreaking havoc on their operations. It’s like a never-ending game of cat and mouse, with thieves snatching up crucial infrastructure like it’s going out of style.

Just to give you an idea, the amount of stolen cables went from a measly 120 kilometres in 2017/18 to a mind-boggling 1,506 kilometres in 2021/22. Thankfully, that number dropped  slightly to 1,037 kilometres in 2022/23, but it’s still a major headache. These incidents are hitting hardest in high-impact areas like the by-passes on the Export Coal Line. It’s a real mess, to say the least.

TFR has faced significant challenges in effectively planning and adapting to operational disruptions, which have seen a substantial increase over the past five years. The number of derailments has also risen, highlighting the need for the implementation of preventative technologies to enhance safety measures. Additionally, cycle times have increased, leading to revenue leakages.

Furthermore, there has been a 25% reduction in the available locomotive fleet in 2021/22 compared to 2017/18, with a 32% reduction in Export Coal. This has resulted in 1,064 suspensions and an increase in non-operating locomotives from 1 to 378, impacting locomotive reliability due to the unavailability of spares. The systemic underinvestment has further exacerbated the maintenance backlog due to limited funds.

The cost of incidents has also risen significantly, resulting in fewer planned activities being executed within the budget. Derailments have also seen an increase. Moreover, underspending on infrastructure has contributed to a backlog in maintenance, with a funding shortfall of R23 billion in infrastructure capital expenditure over the past five years.

As the itch in your trigger finger intensifies, beckoning you to release the fatal blow that will terminate Mzimela’s tenure at TFR, allow a fleeting pause to infiltrate your thoughts. In this momentary respite, summon the collective might of your sniper team, directing their lethal barrels towards the very shareholder who holds the strings of power.

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