You can also listen to this podcast on iono.fm here.
This interview was originally aired on RSG Geldsake (in English, with an Afrikaans introduction that has been translated here).
RYK VAN NIEKERK: The Gauteng Provincial Government has big plans to build a high-speed train system between Gauteng and the Limpopo Province – and is about to officially announce this project. Speaking at a conference in Midrand earlier this week, Premier Panyaza Lesufi said the leadership of the two provinces had already met and a task team would soon be appointed to conduct a feasibility study.
Premier Panyaza Lesufi joins us now. Premier, thank you so much for your time. Just tell us about this project. What are the plans?
PANYAZI LESUFI: We are quite excited. Ever since we made the announcement, we’ve been inundated with various institutions that want to invest in the programme.
Thus far we’ve met with the executive council of the cabinet of Limpopo, and the two cabinets have also presented documents to their own meetings, and all the meetings approved the project.
It’s basically a speed train that will link Gauteng and Limpopo that will start from Johannesburg or Pretoria and end up in Polokwane, in the city. The intention would be to expand it to Musina, but that would be another phase. Phase one is just to link Gauteng and Limpopo.
As I said, we’re quite excited. There are obviously regulatory and compliance matters that need to be met. The first one obviously is to get Treasury approval, and the approval of the National Transport Department.
But the two departments are currently engaging in what we call a feasibility study …
… just to check how it’ll move, the speed and all related matters, so that by the time we meet with the National Transport Department we can answer every question that they ask us.
RYK VAN NIEKERK: What type of train would it be? Something similar to the trains we see on the Gautrain network, or would it be another type of approach?
PANYAZI LESUFI: It’s a ‘train for all’, if I have to put it that way, because it’s also going to carry goods between the two provinces. So to us it’s very, very important. Also passengers, which is very important – whoever wants to [use it] – but it will also obviously be a train that will ferry tourists who might want to visit the two provinces.
So to us it is not about the infrastructure of it; to us it’s about the economy of it, so that we can unleash the economic possibilities.
The two provinces are linked heavily, and we know Gauteng is landlocked. We might reach our capacity, whereas Limpopo is open, so we want to benefit out of the two provinces’ strong points and weak points so that they can supplement each other, rather than compete.
And the growth of Limpopo cannot be underestimated. Limpopo is growing big economically – but also in terms of population. So we want to tap into that growth as Gauteng so that we [are in a] position to revitalise, but most importantly push the economy of Gauteng.
RYK VAN NIEKERK: There will be a big focus on costs, because Polokwane is 250 kilometres from Pretoria and it will take a significant investment in infrastructure to build this project. Is there any indication of what this project will cost, and how it’ll be financed?
PANYAZI LESUFI: That is for the feasibility study, but we doubt it’ll be [unaffordable].
The railway line is there, so we’re not digging afresh. The signals are there. We’re not putting new signals, just putting new technology there.
The infrastructure is there already. Transnet is using that line. So the costs are going to be minimal.
It’s only the infrastructure related to the building of new stations and to ensure that we change the railway line to accommodate a speed line if the current railway line cannot accommodate a speed line.
So unlike digging afresh and using the technology that was used to build Gautrain, this one’s infrastructure is there. It’s just that we’re putting in a new train rather than an old train.
RYK VAN NIEKERK: But it’ll be a public-private partnership, I believe. So it won’t be managed by Transnet or Prasa [Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa], for example?
PANYAZI LESUFI: Well, not necessarily. We already have Gautrain, so unlike applying for a new railway institution we already have Gautrain.
So we just want the Gautrain licence to be expanded to include Limpopo, and then [we] would use Gautrain rather than Prasa or another institution to run this, or ourselves with Limpopo.
If we feel that we need to [set up] a new complete rail institution to run it, we can do so, but we already have permission with Gautrain.
So it’s quicker, it’s cheaper and [will] cut lots of time. The only thing that we need, as I say, is a new technology and the building of these trains, together with the building of the train stations. But the infrastructure is there already. It is not something that we need to dig or need to start afresh.
RYK VAN NIEKERK: So you use the existing Transnet rail infrastructure? You just need to build the stations and procure the trains and the train sets.
If I understand you correctly, the Gautrain management or operator will manage this whole project, so there will definitely be some private-sector involvement. One of the criticisms of Gautrain was and is that it is expensive. Most people cannot afford to use that service. How would you address the concern that such a railway may be too expensive to use for most people?
PANYAZI LESUFI: The good news is what was termed to be expensive, Gautrain, now belongs to South Africans for the very first time.
Come the beginning of 2015 – we had a concession with a French institution to build the train, to operate the train and to transfer it – so come the beginning of 2015, they would transfer everything to us.
So we own it [Gautrain] now. We will not have any other person that we have to pay for running the train.
It’s up to us to determine whether we’ve got the skills, the talent and the capabilities to run it. If we have the skills, the talent and the capabilities to run it, we can expand it to Limpopo.
But if we don’t, it means we can go back to the market and look for somebody who can still build, operate and later transfer it for the next 15 years. This time we don’t want a longer period. We already believe that the minimum of 15 years is enough for that.
So we will make that decision come the time closer … because we are left with only two years until this huge asset now belongs to South Africans, not to any other person.
And we already believe it was an investment worth it, and it was an investment that has changed the look and feel of Gauteng.
RYK VAN NIEKERK: Yes, I think every South African should be proud about Gautrain; it’s a fantastic project but it doesn’t make financial sense. It still cost the taxpayers a lot of money and is underutilised in many ways. I’m sure the same concerns would be extended for a service like the one you are proposing to Polokwane.
PANYAZI LESUFI: I don’t think so. If you look at the road blockages that you have during long weekends and month ends between Limpopo and Johannesburg. Check the environment and also check the cost of time people waste because the roads are not user-friendly.
Yes, Gautrain might have its own limitations. It was the first big train. We have learned from mistakes with it, and that is why the new concession will change it so that we don’t have to pay the amount of money that we were paying before.
We are now experienced, knowledgeable, and we will change things. So [with] the new train between Johannesburg and Polokwane, the challenges that we had with Gautrain will be really minimised, because we’ve learned and we know what needs to be done, and what needs to be left out.
RYK VAN NIEKERK: What are the timelines you foresee? When do you think the train may depart for Polokwane from Gauteng?
PANYAZI LESUFI: There are three phases. Obviously the first phase for us is to get approvals.
If we can get approvals in less than six months or three months – we are pushing for three months, but if we don’t, six months is enough.
If we get that, we really believe that the first brick will then start to be [laid]; it is the second phase to lay the first brick. We really believe it can be done within a year.
If we take the option of not digging afresh, but taking the Transnet line and converting it appropriately, we believe within three years we’ll be in a position to say ‘I have a train to go to Limpopo’.
RYK VAN NIEKERK: Are there plans to also develop rail links between Gauteng and KZN and Cape Town, for example? Maybe not so much focused on freight but on passengers.
PANYAZI LESUFI: On the table, as I’m speaking to you now, it is Gauteng and the Eastern Cape.
We have three of our major motor industries. They have [told] us that they don’t want to use the Durban harbour. It is overloaded and it delays.
They’ve requested us to resuscitate the line to East London.
They really believe that it makes economic sense. We have approached Transnet and Transnet has agreed.
There’s a joint team between ourselves and Transnet to take that particular route. And I’m excited that the East London-Gauteng route, which may also benefit Free State, is currently on the table, and we’re also discussing that aspect.
The Durban-Cape Town one – I think the national office is working on that one.
RYK VAN NIEKERK: There are obviously a lot of infrastructure concerns. There are concerns about the government’s ability to manage very big infrastructure projects. I’m sure you have seen some scepticism on social media.
But if Transnet’s infrastructure is used, how big would this project be? Will it be a massive one? Can you provide us with just some insights into the potential financial implications or cost of the project, and how it compares with other projects?
PANYAZI LESUFI: The feasibility study will be transparent and open. The problem with South Africans is that sometimes they don’t read their own documents, but they’re quick to criticise.
You are right, I saw the comments on social media. It’s people who can criticise even Shakespeare, saying Romeo and Juliet didn’t happen. But they were not Shakespeare, because they are lazy to read and [to] go think.
So the infrastructure or the cost or the budget or the rollout will be the most transparent project, because we know South Africans are infrastructure-fatigued.
They really believe that we can manage our infrastructure, and they really believe that we are missing the point of improving basic infrastructure. We’re now running on high trains, and my view is that we can do them both.
You can improve and maintain the current infrastructure and grow big because you don’t wait for something to be concluded first to start another one. You can’t. It doesn’t work that way. We can start all these big projects.
So this is going to be the most transparent one, this project, and South Africans can follow us if they’re willing to follow the documents that we will deposit. We’re trying to put [in] a new team that can start. We’ll put up a website.
We also need the name of the train and we need the areas in which this train can stop, so that we can have a public participation process.
But this is going to be the transparent open one, and critics are welcome to also contribute.
RYK VAN NIEKERK: Do you think it’ll be a bigger project than Gautrain, for example?
PANYAZI LESUFI: Yes, it will be. Much, much bigger than Gautrain. Bigger than Gautrain, as you say, if we still want to expand it to Musina as well, it can be bigger than Gautrain.
But we’ll do it within our budget limitation. We’re not going to do something that we can’t afford.
That is why with the private-public partnership and the proposals that are already trickling in, we need to be careful in choosing the best one for our province or the two provinces.
RYK VAN NIEKERK: We’ll have to leave it there. That was Premier Panyaza Lesufi.