What is more important to the government – profits or lives? South African coal export has grown by 700% since the beginning of the geopolitical war between Russia and Ukraine earlier this year. This was revealed last Thursday by Mineral Resources Minister Gwede Mantashe during a debate on the Just Transition in parliament.

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South African coal export has grown by 700% since the beginning of the geopolitical war between Russia and Ukraine earlier this year. This was revealed last Thursday by Mineral Resources Minister Gwede Mantashe during a debate on the Just Transition in parliament.

While the coal export growth is good news for the economy, it, however, means more trucks on the N2 from Mpumalanga towards the Richards Bay Coal Terminal in KwaZulu Natal –  one of the world’s largest coal export terminals and the largest in Africa – putting the lives of many road users at risk as coal producers chase profits.  

The last decade has seen a 48% growth in road freight transport with heavy goods vehicles making up 34% of all the traffic on the country’s N3 highway, according to Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula during a media briefing earlier this year. 

“It is worth noting that heavy goods vehicle crashes on that route are now on par with light vehicles. We are concerned that the levels of enforcement are not keeping pace with the growth of the traffic, thereby aggravating the cost to the economy,” said Mbalula at the time. 

Since then, scores of people have died on the country’s roads in truck-related accidents in the run-up to October Transport Month, with the truck accident in Pongola in September that killed 20 people, including 18 children, highlighting the road carnage involving trucks.

But even post the October Transport Month – at the launch of which Mbalula showcased “the revitalisation, resumption and successes of the Rail Corridor Recovery Programme that was instituted by the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) in April 2021” – trucks have continued to wreak havoc on SA’s roads. 

This past week alone, at least nine people were killed in a collision between a car and a truck on the N1 in Limpopo, seven people were killed in an accident between a minibus and a truck on the N4 near Swartruggens in the North West while eight people were killed in a head-on collision involving a bus and a truck on the N8 near Botshabelo in the Free State – perhaps heralding what is to come ahead of the upcoming festive season that is notorious for road carnages. 

With coal export booming and the transportation industry contributing approximately 6.3% of GDP, hugely dominated by the road sector, perhaps the question that should be asked is whether the country is putting profits before lives.   

Founder, Director and Chief Economist of the Efficient Group, Dawie Roodt, does not think so. 

“I guess you can argue that everybody puts profits before lives. Let me give you an example. If the baker can’t sell bread at a profitable price, then he won’t bake break and people will die of hunger. Does that mean now he puts profits before lives?” 

While train as a mode of transport seems to be the cheapest, South Africa has been seeing an increasing migration of people from rail transport to road, mainly taxis, coinciding with an increase of cargo trucks on the roads.  

According to the National Household Travel Survey 2022, between 2013 and 2020 the proportion of households who used taxis increased from 50.8% to 61,8%, while households who used trains or buses or a car as a passenger showed a decrease in the same period. 

Economist Professor Bonke Dumisa says the migration of commuters from rail to road and taxis is not voluntary.  

“I bought a car in 1982, but I continued, for the next three years, to use the train when leaving uMlazi’s Lindokuhle Station to Berea Station because it saved money and there was no violence inside the trains because at the time you had the South African Railway Police being distinct from the regular police. Those police were no-nonsense police and the people understood they could not tamper with railway infrastructure,” recounts Dumisa. 

He says things took a turn for the worst when South Africa became a Constitutional state.  

“The more we became a Constitutional state, which I contributed to, the more, unfortunately, the police became uncomfortable about enforcing the law and one of the first things the new government did was to get rid of the South African Railway Police saying that they were too much on the people and that was a very big mistake. And then the politics of corruption came in. The politics of tenders came in. And people kept on being robbed and being killed inside the trains and then people had to leave the trains and gravitate towards the taxis. So, there were so many things which pushed people. I am emphasising that it was not a voluntary movement of the South African community.” 

Independent transport economist, Vilosh Naidoo, concurs that the rail system is no longer a viable option for commuters.   

“The rail system is no longer a viable option as it does not offer that door-to-door service like taxis, and due to its infrastructure challenges, its services are no longer reliable,” says Naidoo.  

“Rail is unquestionably a cheaper and more climate-friendlier option than the taxi industry. Unfortunately, its service is not very reliable due to aging infrastructure and rolling stock. And when services are disrupted due to such operational issues, users become very frustrated and damage the infrastructure permanently and burn rolling stock, which exacerbates the problem. In South Africa, it’s only the Gautrain that’s offering an efficient service, but this does not serve to poor,” she adds. 

Naidoo says there would be socio-economic benefits for South Africa with better road infrastructure.

“The present reality is that our rural roads make it very difficult for communities to not only access opportunities and services in the urban spaces, but it is difficult for them to access basic services (like schools and clinics) within the rural spaces where they are situated,” she says. “Poor road infrastructure such as gravel and dirt roads make them unsuitable and non-climate resilient. What you would find is that during mild to heavy rains these roads cannot be used due to flooding and other driving hazards. Improving such rural roads from gravel to paved roads will lead to less urban migration, as it will improve accessibility for communities from where they would otherwise prefer to live.”  

Roodt believes there is a serious need for the country to return to rail transport, which he says will improve the general economy for the country and benefit all. 

“Rail is very popular, very efficient and very cheap. That’s cargo and people. In fact, part of the reason why the roads in South Africa are collapsing is because we have moved a lot of stuff from the rail to the roads. So, we need to really jerk up our rail system and to improve that quite dramatically because all these trucks that are on the roads, they shouldn’t be there. The same goes for passengers. You can really move all people, very cheaply with trains and that will in fact make it a lot cheaper for a normal consumer.” 

The household survey has also revealed that travel cost was the highest national priority at 30,8%, followed by travel time at 23,3% and flexibility at 11,9%.  

Roodt believes the country should follow in the footsteps of countries like China, which has rail as the major mode of transport, boasting the world’s largest network of high-speed railways with 37,900 kilometers of lines. 

He says not enough is being done to protect rail infrastructure. 

“More importantly I think it is the authorities that are not enforcing certain laws and regulations and we see that even in the taxi industry. When it comes to the rail-roads industry it needs to be protected from being sabotaged and all of that, but what is true certainly is that there could be some profits to be made out of commodities now and people would, of course, try to make profits as much as possible and they use a lot of trucks or boats they try to push a lot of people to produce as much as possible and transport as much as possible and they end up being involved in accidents.” 

While the taxi industry, with its challenges, continues to offer employment for thousands of poor black people in the country, Dumisa believes there is more that can be done to maximise transport to the benefit of the poor. 

“We are happy that the taxi industry is providing jobs for many black people but it is a very minuscule matter compared to the cost of the potential of people actually being employed in many other sectors which have been affected by the collapse of the rail system in South Africa and the collapse of the bus system in South Africa. And the government as a collective has not really given us the confidence that they have the political will they will to deal with this issue,” notes Dumisa. 

For years the government has mulled the professionalising of the taxi industry and getting it to fully comply with tax laws in the country. Naidoo believes that is a matter the government needs to continue to look into. 

She has, however, shot down the possibility of nationalising the industry to the greater benefit of the country’s economy. 

“That will not happen,” she asserts. “However, the government needs to find ways of properly regulating the industry, as it is a multi-billion-rand revenue-generating industry that is serving a very large population of South Africa. Given the history and how the taxi industry was borne cannot be discounted. It was borne out of the apartheid system that was designed to exclude the masses as far from economic development and opportunities as possible. It was the taxis that gave the masses access. And it has grown in leaps and bounds since then in the absence of regulation. Therefore, it is a very delicate situation that cannot be solved in one easy step.”   

Whichever way one looks at it there seems to be a consensus that a lack of political will and investment in rail transport denies the country an opportunity to improve its socio-economic conditions.

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