(Last Updated on September 9, 2022 by ZIMDAILY EDITOR)
Certain Demise of the National Railways of Zimbabwe – (Response to the Ministry of Transport and Infrastructural Development Permanent Secretary’s utterances in the NewsDay newspaper: August 18, 2022)
By Linda Tsungirirai Masarira
The fact of the matter is that the NRZ was designed to move up to eighteen (18) million tons of freight: local, imports, exports and transit traffic and at least two (2) million passengers per year. To date only two (2) million tons of freight and no inter-city passengers (except for a few commuter passengers) are moving. It should be pointed out that inter-city passenger services have been discontinued over three (3) years ago and it would seem that that service may have suffered a natural death as no plans are afoot to resuscitate that service.
Based on studies undertaken on NRZ manpower, the railways of that size and the level of technology at its disposal, the cut-off head-count of employees is some thirteen thousand (13 000) ranging from a few hundred up to twelve thousand (12 000) trains per year. Any reduction in the above should be met by replacing employees by equipment capable of taking over the equivalent work-load of the displaced employees. To date, there are only some three thousand five hundred (3 500) personnel employed by the NRZ and no significant amount of equipment to replace some nine thousand five hundred (9 500) employees that have been sent packing. And all, in the name of restructuring which in reality is wholesale Down-Sizing.
As a matter of course, restructuring is undertaken when an organization wants to increase both efficiency and capacity with a view of increasing profitability and focus of its undertaking. On the other hand Down-Sizing is meant to reduce capacity of the organization as a result of a shrunk market place. In view of the 2030 Government Policy of Zimbabwe being a middle income country with the economy being drive by mining, manufacturing, and agriculture, it would seem that NRZ’s direction is running contrary to the above national policy as it is seeking the downfall of rail transport in the name of restructuring yet the reality is down-right destruction of the only railway entity in the country by way of down-sizing. It should be pointed out that if the NRZ were seriously on a true restructuring agenda in view of the 2030 Government Policy of being a Middle-Income Country, such an undertaking should have been undertaken by Consultants with vast experience in the field rather than by internal personnel that are the cause of its demise. It should be pointed out that in addition to causing the demise of the entity, most if not all the personnel responsible for the restructuring exercise lack both railway academic qualifications and necessary experience for not only undertaking restructuring of the organization but also the downward trend of the railways. Based on current trends, if no serious interventions are undertaken at Government level, the NRZ would be moving no more than a million tons of freight by the end of 2023.
Railway policy is supposed to be the domain of the Railways Board and such policy, just as is that of the 2030 Government for the economy of the country should be finite entailing that the goal to be achieved should be time limited and should spell out such objectives in operational and financial terms in number form and this should be accompanied by intermediate goals that lead to the long term. Such goals should include operational objectives in Net Tons and the expected Return on Investment (ROI) per annum, acquisition of equipment and the values at based year prizes and the market thrust.
This is not only meant to provide Management with direction but also Government so that it can factor such plans in the overall economic plan of the nation. One wonders whether a spelt out policy exists on the NRZ. As proof of its non-existence, only three years ago, the talk was about having a Strategic Partner for the NRZ where the NRZ introduced the Transnet and DIDG Consortium as the potential Strategic Partner and in no-time the deal was not signed. The next was the potential investor from Russia, Turkey, Dubai, Indonesia, among many others – and soon after, this went silent and this has continued to date.
The talk now is about the acquisition of locomotives and wagons for the NRZ using Government funding. So far, nothing has happened on the ground. As a matter of course, Illegal Sanctions on Zimbabwe have a role in the above but also ignorance on the part of the Board played a bigger role. As a matter of course, Private Sector Investment in long term yields public sector investments came to a grinding halt by 2002 and from thereon, it has been short high returns private sector investments.
The other reason for both International Financial Institutions and Private Sector not being forthcoming is the fact that no reputable consultancy study on the role and the financial requirements for the Strategic Partner have been spelt, something a judicious Board would have undertaken before running-off to seek a Strategic Partner. Unfortunately for some time, the NRZ Board has been made up of personnel with zero railway experience, no experience in big organizations and no requisite qualifications for their job. Little wonder that there is no railway policy to talk of but rather Board spending in terms of hotel, accommodation and travel bills.
Closely related to the overall Railway Policy is the Human Resources Policy which should give rise to the restructuring exercise. The railways is a labour-intensive organization with a vast array of skill requirements that are highly sought after by other industries and abroad. Take for example a diesel mechanic, to have an experienced diesel mechanic takes a minimum of four (4) years of training and an additional two (2) years to have him/her gain the requisite experience.
All in all, it takes six (6) years for the requisite skills to have an efficient employee. In addition to arriving at the cut-off staff levels based on the overall policy for an extensive railways such as the NRZ, cognisance should be taken of the skills requirements at departmental levels and the time it takes to acquire such skills. Furthermore, extensive studies should have been undertaken regarding the replacement of men with machines.
Alas! It would seem the contemporary Railway Boards are oblivious to the necessity of such a Human Resources Policy as is evidenced by the above staff deficit of some nine thousand five hundred (9 500) given the fact no machines are in-sight that should have taken over the work of the above staff. All that is observable is the down-sizing of staff in the name of “RESTRUCTURING” by professionally ill-equipped Management.
However, Human Resources issues at NRZ do not start at the level of the General Manager but the revolution of these issues should start at the Board level where corporate governance of the railway giant are of essence. In terms of previous guidelines of appointments for the Board by the NRZ, the Railways Board of Directors has always been shaped by the industry and other key NRZ stakeholders like the Shareholder (Government). The industry that shaped the policy structure level of the NRZ; which is the Board; included Mining, Agriculture, Manufacturing, Building and Construction, Engineering, among others.
The logic behind shaping the NRZ Board with the industry players was to improve its business, monitoring and evaluation specifications for the sole benefit of its growth through the development of sidings and other growth indices of the organisation’s railway system. This conservative approach of shaping the NRZ Board was long ditched at the inception of the new millennium with successive Ministers either ignoring or utterly ignorant of the NRZ Board appointment template. This has caused the NRZ Board to be dominated by ignorant alien professionals like lawyers and soldiers, among others.
Right now the NRZ Board is being chaired by an ignorant lawyer in the mould of Advocate Martin Dinha who has neither experience nor knowledge about the Railways and he is the one, together with the so-far limited General Manager, leading the NRZ RESTRUCTURING process. All this is a blueprint of failure wrought in its equally failing system and equipment. Unless the NRZ Board appointment template is revisited then the policy structure wisdom of the NRZ will continue to be eroded by each passing appointment.
As a tradition, the NRZ General Manager has been someone who came through the ranks of the organization and often either from the Traffic Operation or from Mechanical departments and with good reasons. Such personnel would have been exposed to the depth and breadth of the railways and could easily converse on any railway topic. That changed from 2003 onwards except for the period 2014 to 2020 when a Mister Mukwada was appointed as General Manager.
Immediately the NRZ’s performance took a nose dive in both its operations and financial performance and the trend has continued with each appointment of an outsider to this very day and with little doubt, this may be the end of the once thriving railways despite the up-turn and the expected growth in the national economy.
As a matter of course, the continued down-turn in the performance of the NRZ for the last eighteen (18) years could be blamed on poor economic performance, which to some extend is true but not all true. Lack of experience at that level of an organization, experience in railway operations and professional qualifications related to transport were the main cause of the sudden tumble in the NRZ performance. Taking the current General Manager as a typical example, though coming from an organization (ZPC) relatively large but was not even a departmental head, a qualified lawyer which is not related to transport, had no knowledge of railway operations by way of being a Board Member (for only 8 months) and some stints as Acting General Manager (for only 8 months) of the NRZ and then the next thing was her appointment as a substantive General Manager. To make things worse, she was saddled with the restructuring of the organization which she hardly knows and hardly knows what restructuring is all about, did not have any policy direction regarding Human Resources from the Board of which she has been a member. The result has been a wholesale down-sizing by way of firing staff and in particular experienced staff including artisans and Management and upgrading non-essential departments and in particular the Railway Security now popularly called “Loss Control”.
There are well laid down procedures on the appointment of staff to higher positions and the firing of staff on the NRZ which have religiously been followed and are in line with the Labour Act. Had the above General Manager risen through the NRZ ranks, the above would have been religiously followed such procedures but the fact that she had never been a department-head anywhere, let alone on the NRZ she had to cut corners both in appointing staff to higher grades without following the laid down procedures resulting in “Kiss Goes by Favour” and on the other hand, dismissal of staff shy of the laid down procedures and this has resulted in the fired staff approaching the highest office on the land His Excellency the President and at the same time approaching the courts for justice. Unfortunately and without the protocol observations, the Permanent Secretary for the Ministry of Transport has come out guns blazing in defence of the General Manager against the allegations.
After all, the employer of the General Manager is the Railways Board and it has remained mum on the matter. Based on the comments made by the Permanent Secretary “Permanent Secretary in Defence of the NRZ General Manager” (NewsDay newspaper: August 18, 2022), were full of disdain and lacked even an iota of investigations into the matter having been undertaken either by way of the Railways Board or by his department. This will have the effect of low morale not only for those employees that have been fired through “Kangaroo Procedures” but also those who are still in the employment. Given the fact that many of the staff that are employed by the railways are technical staff they are already leaving in droves for greener pastures as a result of such loose talk from high offices and the already low morale as a result of what is currently pertaining on the NRZ.
Experience and relevant qualifications are a “must have” as far as the General Manager’s position is concerned due to the simple fact that it is departmentally expansive and each department has its own “dos” and “don’ts” and it is extensively spatial. In addition, it is endowed with a variety of expensive equipment such as locomotives, wagons, the rail track, signalling and so forth. Besides, there are certain aspects of the railways that the General Manager should hold dearly if the railways has to be self-sustaining and play its economic role.
Such aspects include the Current Capacity and expected Future Capacity, aspects that are a necessity if the railways has to play its proper role in transport as they facilitate capacity planning and capital requirements of the organization especially at this juncture when the national economic trajectory has been set. Little wonder, both the Board and Executive are in a mess in terms of the way forward. Both have no iota of what is to be done to match the 2030 economic policy as evidenced by frequent changes of the goal posts: i.e. whether to have a Strategic Partner or to bolster key assets without having proper studies having been undertaken. The situation has been worsened by the fact that a number of experienced and qualified staff have either been fired or have had their job descriptions changed by the current General Manager for no apparent reason other than to show “Who is the Boss”.
According to the amended Railways Act Chapter 13.09, the NRZ is supposed to be a wholly owned Government Commercialized Company as from 1996 with the relevant Minister’s interventions being limited to the appointment of the Railways Board and Government providing funding only for construction of new lines. As currently things stand, the Ministry has directly been involved in the day-to-day operations of the parastatal as the Railways Board in place has no idea of where the railways is going and the Chief Executive who has been appointed by the Board, with the blessing of the Ministry, has no idea with regard to her job description except personalizing the organization at the expense of its growth in line with the 2030 economic blue-print.
According to the 2030 economic policy that will see Zimbabwe being a Middle Income Country, the major economic drivers are expected to be Agriculture, Mining and Manufacturing and already old mines such as Bindura Nickel mine, Bikita Minerals (Lithium), Kamativi Tin Mine (for both Tin and Lithium) and the new Steel works at Mvuma are already on the roll. With the construction of dams and other sources of water, Agriculture is starting to take shape. What is missing in the whole equation is bulk transport carrier as most of the above require reliable and economic mode of transport (the NRZ). Instead of being a serious player in the new economic thrust, the Railways Board is busy ensuring that their accommodation is “Top of the Range” while the CEO is busy down-sizing the organization and a day hardly goes by without a train having derailed due to poor track infrastructure which has seen the last maintenance five (5) years ago so as to ensure that there will be no railways to talk of in the next three (3) years.
If there were a “Bigger Picture” as the Permanent Secretary said, it is to get rid of the mediocre Railways Board, the Current CEO and her appointed troops without any further delay as the ultimate result would be the irreversible demise of the NRZ. What is required as of now is to obtain the services of qualified and experienced former NRZ Managers to stand in for the Railways Board and at the same time direct the NRZ on a recovery path. On the same token, same will direct the NRZ Management on the way forward. One of the retired, qualified and experienced NRZ Manager should be appointed to the post of General Manager for not more than two (2) years with a mandate to turn-round the fortunes of the organization.
All appointed staff by the current CEO to executive positions should have their appointments reviewed with a view to get rid of dead wood. All experienced staff and in particular, the technical staff that have been fired from employment by the current CEO should have their cases reviewed for re-engagement. As a matter of fact, the objective in terms of re-engagement of former railway employees is to ensure that the cut-off employees of thirteen thousand (13 000) is reached unless the cut-off employees can be reduced through the replacement of personnel with machines. The current Security department should be down-sized to its former-self: i.e. excluding “Loss Control” and “General Manager’s Motorcade”. As a matter of course, Government should provide working-capital to the NRZ new Management for the maintenance of locomotives, wagons and track infrastructure and payment of hire-charges for the locomotives for incoming Management.
Had the Government taken-over the NRZ debt at the time of its Commercialization, the parastatal could have been in a better state to fund renewals of the track-network which currently is in a state of disrepair requiring in excess of USD 100 million. Its locomotive fleet which is dominated by the DE 10As, is heavily depleted as its main horse the DE 10A is well over forty (40) years old, more than twelve (12) years above obsolesce require replacement. For now, the NRZ has to make-do with continued hiring locomotives. The fleet of wagons, mainly General Purpose Wagons, some of which were acquired in 1953, have to be replaced with new ones. All the above require injection of capital in excess of two-hundred and fifty (250) million USD. Given the scarcity of funding from the International Funding Institutions due to discontinuation of private sector interest and the illegal Sanctions, Government will have to step in not only to save the NRZ but mainly to ensure that Zimbabwe becomes a Middle Income country by 2030.
In view of the above urgent requirements and the need to get the NRZ on its feet again, it may be necessary to hire the services of Consultants to carry out thorough studies on all of the above. In order to cut-down costs, local Consultants are available with vast international experience on railway feasibility studies.
As a matter of course, the NRZ used to boast of ICT literacy as early as 1962 where Trains Operations could be traced to the last movement and data for decision-making and data generation. To date, all that is in the past, due to successive mediocre Railways Boards and Management from the turn of the century onwards. As a matter of fact, there is no serious railway operations without requisite data. As such, it is another matter the new Management should look into.
The National Railways of Zimbabwe (NRZ) is a huge industry on its own and cannot have shortcuts in running it. As long as the people at the helm of the organisation continue to have a salient approach on the core and conservative ways of running the NRZ, there is a likelihood that the entity will face its total demise in the next couple of years and the Government’s envisioned vision 2030 will only remain a dream and yet there is real potential for the country’s railway industry to become the hub of the region. It should be put on record that there is no amount of hassling or cutting of corners or nepotism mannerisms that will save NRZ except going back to the drawing board and redraw the actual road map that the NRZ will follow for it to be revived. Since 2007, the NRZ has tried to smuggle investors to revive the entity without success because of its RED bank statement. In the same period, the NRZ has tried to circumvent its obsolete rolling stock with hired equipment and has not got noble deals from that.
Again, in the same period, the organisation has tried to tamper with its Human Resources in the name of RESTRUCTURING but this has worsened the organisation’s plight at each RESTRUCTURING attempt. The last feasibility study carried on the rail giant in 1997 revealed that whether NRZ has one locomotive or a thousand locomotives, its lowest human resources should be 13 000 workers. However, the desperate attempt by the NRZ since the inception of the new millennium has been to smuggle successive managers with no Railway experience who have endured successive dismal failures up to now as shown by the smuggled current clueless General Manager in form of Respina Zinyanduko. In the corridors right now, there are attempts to protect this incompetent General Manager by bringing a consultant for her to make her stay long at the helm of NRZ whilst the Board and her Government chain of officials feast on the dying organisation.
Another salient fact that has occurred since the early 2000s has been treating the NRZ as a survival lagoon by successive administrations bearing the chain of Government officials who are also after survival and trying to make sure that their terms are completed when they have amassed huge amount of wealth from Government’s lucrative parastatals. This could also be the case with the Ministry of Transport and Infrastructural Development as blatantly shown by the current Permanent Secretary’s penchant to support the current NRZ circus and rot. While NRZ might appear to the public as broke and obsolete, what is very clear is that these successive administrations with their Government chains of officials come specifically to steal from selling of scrap material and benefit from the vast NRZ reserve land which is State land which should not be sold but right now the situation on the ground is totally different with already Lochnivar and Victoria Falls land being sold and very much earmarked by these vultures. The vultures have for long been feasting on the NRZ carcass for too long. And the current Board and management reminisce the “Vulture feasting culture” that is going on at NRZ with scrap being sold to the Chinese companies and NRZ reserve land being parcelled out to these chains of Government officials.
As shown in the past two decades; whatever the NRZ or its Shareholder (the Government) tries to smuggle in from investors, desk strategists, consultants, pretenders, to human resources so-called experts; that will not revive NRZ but drive it to the grave. The NRZ human resources study template is clear and no expert of that sort is needed for now. The NRZ needs to do it according to the book in terms of Railway policy and approach and that way the organisation can see light. If the Government does not do what is expected of it as the Shareholder, the NRZ is facing a barrel of demise and the run-off wagons will continue the organisation’s downhill demise which will prove difficult to stop in the next couple of years. NRZ might face a shame tragedy of development from the all-round leading Railway entity in the 1960s to the Railway dearth in the 21st century to an extent that Rwanda, which is seeking a Railway route right now, will be considered a better prospect than NRZ. As things stand and looking at what is on the ground, NRZ faces a total and certain demise.