Picture: Karen Sandison/African News Agency(ANA)
Durban - A study tour to South America, which cost millions, to look at best practices for public transport was bungled, with the delegation allegedly spending most of its time in Brazil’s shopping malls and bars before flying home.

The trip, paid for by the eThekwini Municipality, was meant to expose the operators to the operations of the Bus Rapid Transit System. It fell apart after the first leg in Brazil because travel visas had not been secured to go to Colombia.

But the city refused to take the blame for the bungle, claiming to have been ill-advised on visa requirements.

The 59-strong delegation consisted of 18 bus operators, 33 taxi operators, five senior officials from the eThekwini Transport Authority and three consultants.

The delegation was supposed to visit Brazil and Colombia. It left on November 20 and returned on the 29th.

An amount of R2 million from the Public Transport Network Grant had been set aside for the trip. However, following the visa bungle, the costs of the junket ballooned to R2.5m.

When the news of the trip first emerged in August, it was slammed by opposition parties who described the delegation as “too big”.

“Shockingly, the delegation never made it to Colombia. The eThekwini Municipality failed to obtain the visas required to enter Colombia and delegates were stranded in Sao Paulo, Brazil,” said DA councillor Chris Pappas.

He said officials scrambled to make new arrangements as the delegation had no food and accommodation planned for the extended stay in Brazil. “We understand between R400 000 and R500 000 in additional funding was requested from the city to pay for the unplanned stay in Brazil.

“Tempers flared in the airport as the operators spent 24 hours waiting for answers from city officials. The delegation was forced to spend a “holiday” in Brazil with many of the operators taking time to visit malls and bars until their return flight to South Africa,” he said.

Pappas said he had written to the city requesting an investigation into the matter.

IFP councillor Mdu Nkosi said the officials responsible should be disciplined and the municipality should offer an apology to operators for wasting their time.

“Where in the world have you heard of people travelling to other countries without sorting out visas first? If anything happened to those people at malls or taverns while they were supposed to be on a study tour, who would have been responsible?

“We also want an explanation of who authorised the top-up amount for the hotel bookings and food,” Nkosi said.

He said it was disrespectful for officials to fail to brief the councillors on their return.

Bheki Mbambo, the chairperson of the Pinetown Taxi Owners’ Association, confirmed that the trip was botched owing to visa problems.

“They (taxi operators) went to Brazil and were shown a system that had nothing to do with how we work, and they could not continue with the trip because of visa problems.”

Mbambo said they were unhappy with the way they were treated by the city and because the promises made were not kept. “We have been undermined by a black government and we have become the enemies of the black officials who seem hell-bent in taking the livelihoods of our children away. This is painful,” he said.

City spokesperson Msawakhe Mayisela confirmed that the delegation did not make it to Colombia.

“Notwithstanding direct inquiries, which were made to establish if there were visa requirements for entry into Colombia, the advice given to the city by those involved in helping to make arrangements for the study tour was that there were no visa requirements.

“However, when the delegation was already in Sao Paulo, the first city visited, and preparing to go to Bogota, it was informed that Colombia had recently instituted this requirement,” said Mayisela.

He said alternative plans were then made to re-route the delegation to the city of Curitiba in Brazil as a substitute for Bogota so that the delegation could still get the benefit of the exposure to at least two cities.

He said even though access to Bogota was not available, arrangements were being made for the information that was to be presented to still be made available to the city and the delegates.

Asked about the top-up amount and how the delegation had spent its time there, he said: “Given that not all the time was taken up by meetings and there was a weekend during the study tour, it would be unreasonable to expect the delegates not to explore the cities and go to some of the shopping malls.”

He said a report was being prepared for the council.

The Mercury