Mbeki should be a torch-bearer of railway safety in SA

Published May 22, 2024


Mabila Mathebula

When former president Thabo Mbeki proposed that a commission of inquiry into Chief Albert Luthuli’s death be set up, I thought of Diane Lane’s wise words: “A lot can change in the editor room.”

When I was an employee at the Railway Safety Regulator (RSR), I used to contribute articles to the internal newsletter religiously and I had a good relationship with my editor. One day, I submitted an article to the editor on the role that foundations could play in promoting transport safety. The article was rejected by the editor but I was never dejected.

I argued that foundations based on the legacies of great leaders such as Luthuli (he was struck by a train), Dag Hammarskjold, Samora Machel (both died in plane crashes) and Nelson Mandela (he lost a child and a grandchild in road traffic incidents) could contribute to transport safety in an intermodal manner.

I explained that the politicians contributed to political thought and public imagination in a way that politicians rarely do. I thought she would be enchanted when I wrote: “They all agreed with Chief Seattle, that man does not weave a web of life, but is merely a strand in life.”

The editor said: “Mabila I like what you have written but we cannot publish this article in our newsletter because Chief Albert Luthuli died under mysteries circumstances and we happen to be a public entity.” We shook hands and I told her that I understood her point of view.

My experience in the editor room compelled me to recall an anonymous quotation that I once saw on a European train: “Progress has little to do with speed, but much to do with direction.”

Luthuli’s name is synonymous with racial integration and human dignity. He was the president of the ANC from 1952 until his untimely death on a railway track in 1967 and he was the first person in Africa and in the diaspora to win a Noble Peace Prize in 1960.

In his acceptance speech, he said: “I accept it also as an honour to South Africa and to the continent of Africa, whatever their race, colour or creed.” It is on the cards that he was a man of peace who was a threat to the government that used coercive power to achieve its goals

During Chris Hani’s funeral, Joe Slovo asked a million dollar question: “Who killed Chris Hani?” The same questions should be asked: “Who killed Chief Albert Luthuli?”

Mbeki is a commonsensical person and he knows the answer to the question. What he wants is evidence to back up his suspicion. Dr Martin Luther King Jr partly gave us an answer to the question in his acceptance address after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway, on December 10, 1964: “So you honour the dedicated pilots of our Struggle who have sat at the controls as the freedom movement soared into orbit. You honour once again, Chief (Albert) Luthuli of South Africa who struggles with and for his people, are still met with the most brutal expression of man’s inhumanity to man.”

Obviously, the apartheid government was not happy when King mentioned the brutality of the its government against black people and how Luthuli challenged the government of the day to let his people go.

Given Luthuli’s international status, commonsense dictates that the government of the day should have set up a commission of inquiry to investigate his death as part of a transport planning policy, but that was relegated to the background. Transport planning in South Africa from 1910 to 1977 had been “commissioned”-driven. The commissioned approach extended even to 1987, including the:

* Road Motor Competition Commission, 1929, under Jonathan Calf Le Roux.

* Commission of Inquiry into Road Motor Transportation, 1945, under Sidney Maynard.

* Railway Rating Committee, 1950, under CH Newton.

* Commission of Inquiry into Financial Relationship between Central Government and Provinces in 1964, under CGW Schuman.

* Commission on Co-ordination of Motor Vehicles, 1965, under MD. Marais.

* Committee of Inquiry into Urban Transport Facilities, 1972, under J Driessen

* Committee of Socio-economic Passenger Service, 1979, under DG Franzsen.

* De Villiers Commission on SA Transport Services, of 1986.

* The Goldstone Commission of 1992.

Any country that has a history of brutality will eliminate its opponents or use brutal force to achieve results. When Mbeki decreed a safety audit in our mines in 2009, I wrote the following on Occupational Risk Management: “When the industrial history of our country is written, our current government will be noted for standing firm where previous administrations wavered. For many decades, mines did not use any integrated system to manage health, safety or environmental impacts.

“Even in the mid-1900, miners had no rights, and risked their lives if they argued with their supervisors. Several miners did not die of accidents, however, they were killed by their supervisors or colleagues.” The unwritten rule was that anyone who opposed injustice was killed.

Obviously, if a commission of inquiry into Luthuli’s death were set up, it would require excellent planning and execution. It is notable that the commission would take place in an environment where the railway infrastructure is being stolen and vandalised daily, affecting safe railway train operation.

The RSR was created to oversee railway safety in South Africa and not to manage social problems such as the occupation of railway land by illegal dwellers, theft and vandalism. The social problems are affecting the railway’s safe operation and the smooth running of railways in our country.

Luthuli was a man of integrity. He should be turning in his grave to see his people, whom he loved, stealing and vandalising railway property and expecting the RSR and railway operators to execute their mandate with grace.

I remember when I visited Norfork Southern in Virginia, US. Norfork Southern was the safest railway in the world. When I ask why that was the case, I was told that in the US, they did not regulate commonsense. It is beyond the mandate of the RSR to regulate social problems or what in Norfolk Southern they call commonsense.

When Mbeki suggested Luthuli’s inquest, I saw him as a messenger of God who had been sent to honour Luthuli’s memory in an immortal way. A messenger of God comes to the world with two messages – the spiritual message and the social message. The spiritual message does not change, what changes is the social message.

Mbeki should collaborate with the SAPS, RSR, the Chief Albert Luthuli Foundation and other role players to promote railway safety and security. His spiritual message to South Africa should be: “Do not kill our railways.” His social message should be: “The railways are our collective property, let us not steal and vandalise our railways.”

The only way to pay tribute to Luthuli is to rededicate ourselves to protecting the railway infrastructure against thieves and vandals in South Africa.

Author and life coach Mathebula has a PhD in construction management.