OPINION: There are many goods that can be best transported by trains instead of by road. Almost all mining products were transported strictly by train. Most of the mining goods are now mostly transported by huge trucks. This causes a lot of damage to the road networks, and is the primary reason for most of the potholes that are costing the South African economy billions of rand a year, writes Professor Bonke Dumisa.
By Professor Bonke Dumisa
I WAS asked to comment on comments by some top economists and other people that the “collapse of Transnet has cost the South African economy over R3.1 trillion”. Some people have said these are exaggerated figures and outright scaremongering.
It is the truth that when the new ANC-led majority government took over after the historic first post-apartheid democratic elections on April 27, 1994, they threw away a number of babies with the bathwater.
The South African Railways and Harbours was the apartheid government entity tasked with matters related to railways and trains. If you go to all the major cities in South Africa you will notice that Durban, Cape Town, Johannesburg, Pretoria, Bloemfontein or even Empangeni and Richards Bay were and still are anchored around the sophisticated major railways networks. Despite that entity being an apartheid structure, we must accept that they were very efficient and reliable, far more than Transnet.
The main mode of transport from one major town to another was mostly by train. I remember my very first trip by train to the University of Zululand, in KwaDlangezwa which is part of Empangeni. The whole trip took me about eight hours from Durban Station to Felixton Station in Empangeni. That trip included at least one hour at Gingindlovu Station where the train changed its driver’s coach from an electric train to a coal-steam train. We must, however, accept in this case that spending over eight hours on a train from Durban to Empangeni was indeed not the best way of moving from one town to another, especially because it takes less then two hours to drive from Durban to the University of Zululand. It was therefore good for the South African economy to have the taxi industry step in and take over the passenger business from the railways and trains to the roads.
But, while it makes a lot of sense why the railways and trains lost a lot of passenger business to the taxi industry, in cases like my eight-hour train trip from Durban to Empangeni; it is true that when the post-apartheid majority government decided to rename the South African Railways and Harbours to Transnet, not only did they just change a name they also lost the whole plot on why there is an important need for an efficient railway system in South Africa.
There are many goods which can be best transported by trains instead of by road. Almost all mining products, like coal, were transported strictly by train. Most of these mining goods are now mostly transported by huge trucks. This causes a lot of damage to the road networks, and is the primary reason for most of the potholes that are costing the South African economy billions of rand a year.
The newly built or assembled cars were previously almost solely transported by trains to various parts of the country. It is no longer the case. Most of us know the great inconvenience we usually face when we are delayed by the huge numbers of multiple-car carriers that hog most national roads. It was not the decision of motor car companies to shift their movement of cars from the railways to the road networks; they were forced to do this because of a combination of Transnet’s inefficiencies and the rising lawlessness in South Africa which has seen a lot of railway networks being invaded by communities that rendered such railway networks unfit for purpose. The movement of the transportation of cars from rail to road has added to the expensive damage to the road network. This has proved very costly to the economy.
The same can now be said about many previously efficient intra-city rail systems that have collapsed and forced many poor train users to shift to expensive taxis.
You must now do your own calculations, to see how many opportunities and how much money Transnet has directly lost to see why some are saying that Transnet costs the economy at least R366 billion a year, and poses a R3.1 trillion risk to the South African economy.
* Professor Bonke Dumisa is an independent economic analyst
** The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of the DFA.