We must harness available skills

A white paper on the improvement of the rail system in South Africa has just been published. About time!

The paper comes at a time when the rail system in the country is a shameful mess, crippling the movement of bulk goods and the transportation of people, particularly the working class. Both people and goods have shifted to the roads, damaging them and costing the commuters a pretty penny.

At a time when many countries in the world are modernizing their rail systems through science, technology and innovation, we were on an inexplicable path to destroying ours at a dizzying rate. The economy of the country, robbed of its backbone, is suffering immensely. We inherited a railway system that was the best on the continent in size, length of track, sophistication and network. We destroyed it within 2o years of our democracy.

It seems to confirm the racist narrative that black people are, by nature, incompetent, unintelligent and lazy. There are those who have surmised that South Africa will follow the path of ruin that other countries on the continent have taken.

This narrative infuriates many of us to no end. It is just the government of the day that stubbornly refuses to deploy the abundant skills, knowledge and talent that reside in this country to run state institutions. Just compare the running of the Gautrain with that of the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa)  and Transnet. Chalk and cheese. Yet these are skills within one country. Of course, some of the maladministration and
mismanagement is meant to facilitate corruption and looting.

This refusal to make use of all the talents in South Africa does not confine itself only to the rail sector. The majority of our municipalities are a disaster, forcing the auditor-general to give them disclaimers and qualified audits year in and year out. The Post Office is almost comatose at present, run into the ground by the state entity that would simply not nurture and manage its assets properly. And yet, properly utilised, the Post Office could be a boon to the country, especially the rural and peri-urban areas, rendering such services as banking, mail and parcel deliveries.

But the big one is Eskom. At the attainment of democracy, it was the biggest company in the country, with a healthy balance sheet and among the best three electricity generators in the world. It remains the only one on the continent to run a nuclear power station. But we have brought it to its knees. Again because the state will not utilise the skills and talents that exist in our country, feeding the lie that says we are an incompetent people.

We are a capable country. Look at our sophisticated telecommunication system that compares well with the best in the world. It is run, by and large, by South Africans. Just survey the strength of the SA banking and insurance sectors.

Cast your eye further into the engineering capabilities that are on display in our mining, construction and manufacturing areas. These live cheek by jowl with teetering publicly owned entities, which pull the economy of the country down. So, the rehabilitation and modernisation of our rail system, as envisaged by the white paper, will only amount to something if we stop appointing only the connected to the governance and management arrangements of the system.

We should harness the energies, talents, skills and knowledge of all our people to breathe life into our rail system. That, of course, applies also to our municipalities, Eskom and other state-run entities.

  • Mangena is former minister of science and technology
Mosibudi Mangena.

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