More than a month after Sunday Standard sought its comment, the Ministry of Transport and Communications has yet to respond to written questions about why it never responded to alarm sounded by the Botswana Railways (BR) union about woefully deficient safety standards at the government-owned rail transport company.
In December last year, a BR passenger train derailed upon approaching Mahalapye station. Two crew members died on the spot. The accident led to a public inquiry which was conducted in terms of the Railways Accident (Inquiry) Act. What has emerged so far from the testimonies of witnesses is that safety standards at BR have not been up to standard in a really long time. The ministry was alerted to these lapses as early as 2017.
In a March 17, 2017 letter titled “Request for Your Intervention to Save Botswana Railways from Collapsing Due to Disregard for Safety by Management”, BRAWU (as it then was) appealed for the minister’s intervention.
“BRAWU has unsuccessfully tried several times to engage management on safety issues because management is too defensive of its inadequacies,” reads a letter from the Union’s General Secretary, Thapelo Motube. “BRAWU has long requested for the formation of a joint safety committee in which BRAWU would be represented as stipulated in the Memorandum of Agreement, but management is not budging. We believe that this committee would objectively address the lack of safety oversight in Botswana Railways and save the company from imminent collapse.”
At the time, the Minister was Kitso Mokaila but President Mokgweetsi Masisi would redeploy him to the Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources Conservation and Tourism on April 1, 2018.
BRAWU, which has been renamed the Botswana Transport and General Workers Union, also expressed grave concern that when accidents occur, the culprits arrogate to themselves, the right to investigate such accidents, pin blame on “poor workers” and avoid dealing with the real causes of the accidents. Evidence provided to back up such assertion is that whereas the Safety Manager should have been the one being investigated for a November 16, 2014 train accident that occurred between Lobatse and Otse, he actually got to chair a panel that investigated the accident. The same sort of thing would happen with two other accidents.
“As a result, accidents will continue occurring in Botswana Railways,” the letter warned ominously, going on to list six accidents which “could have been avoided if BR had a functional safety system.”
Apparently, this was not the first time that the union had sent an SOS message to the ministry. The union’s letter says that “in the past, BRAWU tried to alert the ministry on more than one times” and refers the minister to the BRAWU file in the ministry.
The letter made a stark warning that “if the higher authorities do not act to address the safety situation in Botswana Railways, more accidents that may lead to the collapse of the organisation are bound to continue.” By “higher authorities” it was referring to the minister.
The letter quotes specific instances when human life was imperilled. In the March 15, 2015 accident in Ramotswa, “we nearly lost
crew” of a capsized train. In a July 14, 2016 accident at Pilane, “a crew member was run over by the train and fortunately lost a leg.” In the February 20, 2017 accident in Lobatse, “the organisation nearly lost the train crews.” Two crew members, a train man and permanent way inspector, died in last year’s accident.
Despite the fact that more accidents continued to occur, the meeting that the union sought with the minister never happened.
Sunday Standard complied with government requirements for seeking official comment to the letter by dispatching a set of written questions – and not at the last minute. While one officer in the ministry’s PR department frowned upon the writer’s quality of journalism as reflected in the questions (“Le wena dipotso tsa gago kgaitsadiakaaa …”), there was at least firm assurance, later affirmed by a more senior officer from another department, that an official response would be tendered. We even went a step farther and provided the ministry with a copy of the union’s letter which the latter officer said they couldn’t find. A month later, there is still no response.