File Picture: David Ritchie/ANA Pictures
JOHANNESBURG - The Department of Transport (DoT) went to ground on Friday and failed to answer questions as to when it will appoint the new board of the embattled state rail agency, the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa), close to two months since the last board’s tenure expired.

In July, Transport Minister Joe Maswanganyi told the public broadcaster that the department had started processes to appoint new boards for five state entities, which report to the department, and that the new boards would be operational by August.

“We have advertised the vacancies in almost five boards: Cross-Border agency, South African Maritime Safety Authority (Samsa), Prasa, Civil Aviation Authority and Road Accident Fund.

"We will make sure that in August all those boards are fully operational, because by then I would have submitted the appointments to Cabinet for approval.

"It is not only the Prasa board where there are vacancies it is almost five. And it is my responsibility to approach the Cabinet to make those appointments,” Maswanganyi had told the SABC.

The rail agency has also been under interim management since the 2015 acrimonious departure of Lucky Montana.

Last week media reports suggested that Prasa and the department of water and sanitation were set to give two contracts valued at R70billion to a Chinese state-owned company in absence of a public tender having been issued.

The department’s spokesperson, Ishmael Mnisi, failed to respond to voice mail messages and SMSes left for him to explain what has delayed the process to appoint boards of Prasa and other entities.

Research analyst at Nomura, Peter Attard Montalto, said despite rising claims of corruption and rent extraction in Prasa, Transnet, and other SOEs, there had not currently been other creditor issues made public yet on these entities.

“We believe that the issue of parastatals, their risks, governance, funding restraints and links to the sovereign will become an increasingly important issue for the rating agencies, and ultimately be a contributory factor in pushing both Standard &Poor’s and Moody’s South Africa’s long-term local currency rating over the edge into junk status,” Montalto said.

The eventful three-year tenure of the board led by ANC veteran Popo Molefe expired at the end of July. That board had endured a fraught relationship with both Maswanganyi and his predecessor Dipuo Peters.

In March Peters had dismissed the board accusing it of failing to adhere to good governance prescripts at the rail agency after the board had fired interim chief executive Collins Letsoalo after accusations that he hiked his salary from R1.3million to R5.9m. However, in April the board was given reprieve by a High Court order that reinstated it to complete its last three months in office.

Molefe’s last act as Prasa chairperson was to hit out at Maswanganyi and accuse him of prejudicing the board’s investigation following former public protector Thuli Madonsela’s Derailed report.

“The departing board does not believe that the minister has Prasa’s best interests, and the interests of the public, at heart,” Molefe said in a statement.

Madonsela in her 2015 Derailed report had found evidence of widespread maladministration in the awarding of tenders worth R2.8bn at the rail agency.

Last year auditor-general (A-G) Kimi Makwetu said Prasa contributed R13.9bn in irregular expenditure in the 2015/16 financial year.

In May, the A-G told legislators that the entities that report to the DoT, including Prasa, the Road Traffic Infringement Agency, the Railway Safety Regulator and Samsa were among entities that would miss targets set out in their strategic plans.