Zuma supporters’ free ride on the eThekwini gravy train

The eThekwini bus service has been run into the ground by politically-connected operators. Photo by Vanessa Burger

Recently staff at the eThekwini Municipality bus depots reported that around 80% of the service had been rerouted – free of charge (ie at ratepayers expense) – to transport Jacob Zuma’s supporters to his latest court appearance. This left commuters stranded all over Durban. It was especially hard for poor people who had already charged their prepaid Muvo cards and were forced to suddenly find extra cash for alternative transport.

Durban, South Africa

Workers at eThekwini bus depots around the city reported that about 80% of the 600-strong fleet was rerouted to transport supporters of former president Jacob Zuma during his Durban High Court appearance on Friday, 6 April after corruption and racketeering charges linked to the controversial arms deal were reinstated earlier this year. This capture of the buses left commuters stranded and city ratepayers out of pocket.

According to bus depot employees who spoke on condition of anonymity, “municipal buses were allocated to collect people from townships surrounding Durban to support Msholozi in court.”

When municipal buses are privately hired, a waybill and special authorization must be signed. These workers confirmed that, “These buses were just issued for free. They were moving in and out without proper paperwork.”

Days before the case, controversial business groupings that are among some of Zuma’s most strident supporters, had called for donations for transport costs to be made to the Jacob Zuma Trust Fund. But only 2 days before the court date, a member of the trust announced that no deposits had been made into the account.

Bishop Vusi Dube, organiser of the night vigil held on the eve of Zuma’s appearance, however, confirmed that more than 200 buses would be provided. He did not say who was footing the bill.

On the streets, a stranded commuter who declined to be named complained: “Those of us who use Muvo cards have suffered a lot because of Zuma.”

A group of angry Umlazi students said they could not attend lectures because they had no cash for alternative transport. Muvo card-holders budget – and pay for – their trips in advance, which are then loaded onto their cards.

UDM leader, Bantu Holomisa, has since called for an investigation into whether taxpayers’ money was used to support Zuma at court.

The eThekwini Bus Service is run as a joint venture with Tansnat Africa whose sole shareholder is taxi boss Mandla Gcaba, Jacob Zuma’s nephew.

Ethekwini mayoral spokesperson, Mthunzi Gumede, claimed the lack of buses on 6 April was “operational” and referred questions to Tansnat. Tansnat remained silent on the matter.

Tansnat employees have long claimed the public service is run as if it were Gcaba’s taxi association.

“He sends his taxi drivers who don’t have a Code 10 to drive the buses. It’s dangerous for commuters,” claimed one on-site staff member, adding, “The buses are often damaged because the drivers aren’t skilled and then have to be towed back to depot.”

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Taken for a ride

Durban’s public transport service has been mired in corruption since 2003 when the city sold its fleet to Remant Alton for R70m. Owned by politically-connected entrepreneur, Jay Singh – the recipient of countless allegedly corrupt city tenders and implicated in the 2012 Tongaat shopping mall collapse which left one person dead and injured another 29 – Remant Alton rapidly drove the service into the ground.

According to former drivers, when the fleet was privatized, they were given a choice of either continuing their employment provided they buy shares that were supposed to have provided a 30% stake in the new company; or accept a package and be rehired on a temporary basis. After Remant Alton folded, drivers who had elected to buy into the venture were left empty-handed and jobless.

“There was nothing in writing so the municipality distanced itself and suggested drivers take Remant Alton to court,” said a source close to proceedings at the time. “But how can unemployed people afford lawyers? They have suffered terribly.”

In 2008, the municipality bought back its fleet – now 5 years older – for an astounding R405m. Thereafter Tansnat won a contract to lease the fleet at R15,000 per bus per month. The deal, heavily subsidized by the Provincial Department of Transport, was declared illegal when a court application by competitors found that procurement processes had been contravened.

In its defense, the Department claimed it had been “an emergency and priority” to restore services to stranded commuters, and that, in terms of the contract, the city could appoint an alternative service provider should Remant Alton fail to meet its contractual obligations. Tansnat was allowed to continue operating on a month-by-month basis.

The ‘emergency’ persists

In 2011, nearly a year after Tansnat’s contract expired, the municipality announced that the service would go out to tender. But instead, Tansnat clung on and managed to expand its lucrative portfolio by adding new routes for students and on the KZN south coast, also without following due process. By 2012, former municipal manager, Sibusiso Sithole claimed the company had caused council to incur R300m in irregular expenditure.

A year later, the Tansnat owner apparently awarded himself a R30.7m unsecured loan on the back of his ailing company. Despite increased subsidies, Gcaba repeatedly failed to pay staff. In 2015, the municipality tried to cancel the deal, claiming Gcaba used city coffers “as a personal bank account,” and applied for Tansnat’s liquidation. Gcaba cited high staff turnover and failure by the city to reimburse pre-paid Muvo trips for his financial problems. The city ended up covering about R26m of Gcaba’s debt.

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Durban buses have been grounded six times since 2015, most recently in March this year, due to diesel shortages. A 2016 strike during which workers alleged that Tansnat had used provident fund contributions to pay for diesel threatened to cripple the city’s transport system, and forced the municipality to cough up a further R33m to keep buses running and pay staff.

Furious drivers who declined to be named, said at the time: “We are afraid of this man. Once you talk to journalists, you know what will happen.”

Blood on the floor

They have good reason to be afraid. Gcaba’s brother, Mfundo, also a taxi boss, was implicated in the 2015 Brook Street taxi rank massacre where 3 people were killed and another 3 injured. Despite allegations of police and political interference, charges were ultimately withdrawn in 2017 due to ‘ballistics irregularities’ and the ‘disappearance of witnesses.’

The city has recently stated it has no plans to terminate Tansnat’s services and Ethekwini Executive Mayor, Zandile Gumede reported that “we are working with the [Transport] MEC, Mxolisi Kaunda to find a long term solution.”

This ‘long-term solution’ is, however, likely to come at even greater cost to the public.

The city recently announced plans for a R1.1b bus upgrade as part of GoDurban’s murky bus rapid transport initiative. In 2014, 3 taxi association leaders who were believed to have been about to expose corruption within the GoDurban / SA National Taxi Council (SANTACO) taxi recapitalization process, were assassinated. No one has been prosecuted. Opposition parties are concerned this latest bid may be used to subsidize new buses for Tansnat.

As long as the public pays for Zuma’s legal expenses, it is predicted he will extend the case as long as possible to avoid jail. Just as one of Zuma’s dubious corporate cheerleaders declared recently: “Transport will be available for the duration of Zuma’s trial,” there can be little doubt the public will be paying dearly for Zuma supporters’ free ride on eThekwini’s gravy train for a long time to come.

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