William Saunderson-Meyer
William Saunderson-Meyer

Huffing and puffing at the bus company from hell

It is just possibly the most despised commercial entity in South Africa. It has been threatened with closure by ministers, targeted by cops and sued for millions. It’s the intercity bus company from hell that regardless just keeps on trucking.

SA Roadlink, labelled ‘Deathlink’ by its detractors, has, since its inception six years ago, been involved, on average, in two serious road accidents a year. At least 64 passengers have died — the most recent being 10 in three accidents over the past couple of months — and more than 300 injured.

Aside from the incalculable human cost of such carnage, the state’s Road Accident Fund will have paid out millions to these victims. Now the floodgates of civil litigation are beginning to open.

Last week the courts awarded R1-million to an injury victim from Roadlink’s first major crash when, in 2006, a bus drove into a freeway pillar outside Pietermaritzburg, killing 12 (including three children) and injuring 40. Two additional claims amounting to R1.2-million from that accident have also been settled by the operator, without the final compensation sum being disclosed.

Just prior to these litigatory setbacks the new Roadlink national transport manager decamped after only three days in the job, delivering to City Press a dossier alleging collusion between the company’s managers and its owner to forge road permits. The police are investigating.

In response to these latest developments, Western Cape Transport Minister Robin Carlisle joined his Gauteng counterpart to promise “tough action”. Every Roadlink bus would be stopped and comprehensively checked.

Roadlink is seemingly unfazed. Maybe because it has heard it all before. The company’s Nolin Padayachee responded, more ambiguously than he probably intended: “Our proven track record speaks for itself when it comes to safety and danger to our passengers.”

The Democratic Alliance’s Carlisle had promised the same tough action and more in 2010. Reacting to a spate of impounded un-roadworthy Roadlink buses, he huffed and puffed “enough is enough. We have instructed our legal team to look for a legislative solution” to cancelling Roadlink’s operating licences.

Nothing happened. Then in 2011 Carlisle reiterated that Roadlink was “the most problematic of all” bus companies. The solution was — eureka! — “to inspect each and every” Roadlink bus, as well as bring “possible criminal charges” against the company.

Nothing happened. But then African National Congress politicians have fared even worse with Roadlink than their DA counterparts.

Former national police commissioner Bheki Cele, when he was KwaZulu-Natal transport minister, in 2008 described Roadlink as a “killing machine” with “coffins on wheels”. In characteristically dramatic fashion he arbitrarily banned Roadlink from KZN’s roads but backed down equally dramatically when challenged in court.

And when a Roadlink bus burnt out on the N3 in 2009, KZN Transport minister Willies Mchunu promised “tougher measures” because of “too many serious accidents” involving Roadlink. in 2010 Mchunu announced Operation Shanela, deploying a special enforcement unit to ensure that no Roadlink bus left its depot without a pre-trip inspection, saying that ‘experience and the body of evidence’ pointed to Roadlink as the country’s worst public transport provider.

There would be an “interprovincial strategy”, promised Mchunu, aimed at Roadlink being “declared unfit” to hold a public transport licence. But Roadlink kept rolling.

Former national transport minister S’bu Ndebele, who once described as a “moving graveyard” a Roadlink bus impounded because its undercarriage had been roped together, in 2009 promised a “full investigation in conjunction with the SA Police Service” into Roadlink. No more has been heard.

One must hand it to multi-millionaire Roadlink boss, Allan Reddy. He has seen off the ministers, the cops, and the disgruntled passengers. Reddy is clearly a man of great commercial acumen and resilience. No wonder he was some years back Ernst & Young’s tone-deaf choice as SA finalist in its World Entrepreneur awards.

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