The Ulundi Business Forum (UBF) has called out Transnet Freight Rail (TFR) for its accusations that the forum had made threats subsequent to the derailment of a coal train, with 97 trailers, near Ulundi in KwaZulu-Natal, more than a week ago.
TFR last week announced a force majeure after a train transporting coal to the Richards Bay Coal Terminal derailed last week, while pointing a finger at the UBF for the incident.
TFR said earlier this week it had enlisted the assistance of the KZN traffic department, the SAPS flying squad, as well as the police to provide protection for the transportation of heavy duty equipment amid fears of that the mysterious UBF was sabotaging the infrastructure.
UBF chairman Musa Ngqulunga in an interview yesterday denied that the forum had brandished or fired guns, held hostage the recovery process or demanded work in addition to what had already been agreed on.
“We are surprised that the TFR can come and accuse us of sabotage or anything. The line managers are probably trying to save their skins to their bosses. We have a long history of working with Transnet,” Ngqulunga said. He said the forum was surprised when it saw fresh equipment being taken to the site under the protection of heavy weaponry.
He explained that the forum was a community based work advocacy group that mobilised work for members according to the nature of business they engaged in, and the opportunity arising from projects undertaken within their jurisdiction.
Admitting to a three-hour delay last Tuesday when the debacle started, Ngqulunga said the forum had been consulted by the TFR for a quote on clearing and salvaging of the train and proceeded to the site when their response was delayed, only to find that another contractor from Mpumalanga, with full equipment, had begun the clearing work.
“That was the cause of the disagreement because the work is within our jurisdiction. We wondered how another contractor from far away could be engaged. In any event, the contractor had been hired by the mining companies, whose coal it was and we found a compromise to do the work,” Ngqulunga said.
In a series of updates since the train derailed a week ago, the TFR has maintained that the train carrying export coal route to Richards Bay derailed outside Intshamanzi, near Ulundi because of alleged “violent, extortion efforts by the Ulundi Business Forum”.
It said it would be laying charges of violence, tampering with essential infrastructure and extortion.
On the day of the derailment, the TFR said it was engaging with Amakhosi and the SAPS to try to resolve threats to the organisation as well as disruptions to its operations along the North Corridor.
It said the cause of the derailment would be investigated and although it was too early to pre-empt the outcome, the derailment took place against the backdrop of threats and disruptions to the company’s operations by disgruntled groupings seeking business opportunities.
But Ngqulunga said though not official, the UBF had heard reports that the TFR engineers suspected that the train had been speeding, but the final result would come from ongoing investigations.
“How could we sabotage Transnet because we are not fighting with it, but negotiating work. The threats they went to see Amakhosi about might stem from when Transnet asked the Amakhosi to recruit labour and personnel for projects, the leaders inevitably hire their own relatives and friends, that is why people are protesting,” Ngqulunga said.
Transnet has not given a definite timeline when the railway line would be back in use, but indications are it could be over the weekend, marking nearly two weeks that the Richards Bay Coal Terminal has not been operational.
Business organisations, including the Minerals Council of South Africa, have warned of the dire state of Transnet, and how its inefficiencies continue to undermine economic growth, particularly with the price of coal hitting a 700% high, as a result of the Russia-Ukraine conflict.