By Bahle Gama
A criminal network has been discovered to be operating within the ranks of Eswatini Railways (ESR) as goods and equipment go missing.
The shenanigans at the organisation are coming to the public domain as a security company has taken the entity to court over the termination of its contract following the arrest of an ESR employee for theft.
In a bid to cover up theft and protect the criminal network, the security company that uncovered it, Black Mamba Security, was removed and replaced with one owned by a senior ESR employee. The matter has been kept under wraps with some ESR senior officials refusing to come clean on the situation.
A meeting held on August 19, 2022, between the ESR and APEX, a body representing companies that offer services to the entity saw the resurrection of the topic but it was quickly squashed before the Director of Engineering, could respond.
According to the minutes of that meeting, APEX Chairperson Samketi Dlamini indicated they had received a letter indicating the termination of the Black Mamba Security Services contract based on allegations of loss of rail material at Mpaka.
The Eswatini Financial Times has seen the letter dated August 1, 2022, from ESR CEO Nixon Dlamini to the chairperson of the company. In the letter, the ESR’s Dlamini said they had ‘observed with serious concern numerous reports of impropriety by employees under your employ in various stations where they are stationed, which in our view accounts for poor work performance.’
“There have been incidents of misconduct reported at Mlawula, Matsapha and Mpaka, which we have brought to your attention the involvement of your employees in illegal activities. You will recall that the post at the Matsapha ICD was withdrawn as a result. In addition, there have been incidents of theft of rail at Mpaka where your employees were implicated, this too was brought to our attention. Consequently, Eswatini Railways hereby advises of the intention to terminate services with your company in terms of Article 16.2 of the Service Level Agreement,” the letter further stated.
However, APEX’s Dlamini called for the suspension of that letter until investigations were concluded. He said the basis of the termination was non-existent as there was no report of loss of rail Material at Mpaka.
He instead reminded the meeting of the crimes committed by ESR employees.
“[At] ICD Matsapha, blankets were reported to be stolen in a container. Black Mamba Security arrested all suspects including her employee. It was discovered that the ESR employee was the one who orchestrated the theft of blankets and was in charge of the seals. He said according to his knowledge, ESR seals were kept by a senior member of the staff ‘station master’, not a junior officer. Surprisingly, ESR decided to take work from them and gave it to Maximum Security without proper engagement,” the minutes said.
Following that, it was discovered that one ESR employee was found to be one of Maximum Security Company’s shareholders. The ESR senior official resigned once the allegations surfaced. The very same company was allegedly embroiled in a theft scandal, but nothing was done.
“Maximum Security officers were also involved in the theft of Ethanol for an ESR customer at the ICD but Maximum’s job at the ICD was not taken as done to Black Mamba, Why? APEX wondered if ESR would be happy if this can be discussed in public. APEX chairperson also mentioned that he once visited a scrap yard and he found rail material crashed and called the director to find out if there were any rail scraps sold to the scrap yard of this kind. There was no response from ESR. The owner of the scrap yard mentioned the names of ESR employees that were involved in the sale of the rail material, but there was no investigation instituted on this matter by ESR,” the minutes revealed.
Dlamini also lambasted the ESR CEO over his alleged failure to respond to letters requesting updates on the status of affairs or even an acknowledgement of receiving their communications.
APEX was created in a bid to ensure communication between the ESR and the service providers was seamless and smooth and did not necessitate individual contact with the different companies.
That has however not been the case. Dlamini complained that since the ESR committee was established and introduced to them, no meetings had ever been held.
“APEX chairperson wondered why we are reverting to where we started. He said ESR advised them to form APEX instead of engaging individual companies at a time. ESR now wrote a letter informing them that going forward, they will engage each company at a time instead of APEX,” the minutes of the meeting revealed.
Black Mamba Security Services has now taken the matter to court where it has filed an urgent application to the High Court to stop ESR from unlawfully terminating its E180 million contract.
With about 60 employees countrywide, the security company is reported to generate an income of about E500 000 monthly and about E180 million in the three-year duration signed for with ESR which is expected to end in March 2023.
Black Mamba Chairperson Canaan Dlamini said the short notice of the termination was causing a problem for them as they had to notify the labour department and further give notice to employees whilst still awaiting a meeting from ESR.
Eswatini Railways’ Corporate Communications Manager Sive Manana briefly said: “Sorry, this issue is still in the jurisdiction of the courts of law, we cannot discuss it in any other platform.”
Pressed on the criminal activity allegations, he explicitly said: “no comment.”
Black Mamba Security Services is a part of a list of companies that were established by former ESR employees when the organisation instituted retrenchments in 2003. The former workers established companies and provided services following the signing of five-year service-level agreements.
The contracts have been renewed since then until 2020 when ESR engaged with the companies on the need to become compliant with the procurement National Laws but those discussions were said to have been nugatory. The companies continued to provide services without written contracts.
On July 20, 2022, ESR wrote a letter to Eswatini Public Procurement Regulatory Agency (ESPPRA) requesting a deviation in the process and to backdate contracts from April 1, 2020, to March 31 2023. ESR CEO said, “this will allow the organisation to initiate the public tender process and normalise the appointment of the selected service providers to be in compliance with the ACT.”
ESPPR CEO Vusi Matsebula on August 30, 2022 chastised the ESR and said they were not in agreement with its conduct.
“The Agency has assessed the merits of your application and notes that you request authority to deviate and authenticate the engagement of companies which are already providing services without having gone through the procurement process. The Agency is not in support of the prevailing conduct, however, as per your representation of the circumstances which resulted in the prevailing circumstances, the Agency permits an ex-gratia approval of your application…,” Matsebula said.
The approval came with conditions. The Agency advised ESR to capacitate the contractors on procurement, including the tendering process to ensure that after the requested three-year contract period, they can bid competitively with other bidders.
“This suggestion is premised on the observation that the said contractors were employees before retrenchment processes and the ESPPRA is not appraised of any interventions that your organisation has made towards not merely establishing companies for them, but also ensuring that they are empowered to compete in the procurement process,” reads the letter.