UBER & National Land Transport Act; NSRI on Medical Evacuations from Ships; Ex-PRASA sub-contracted workers

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01 September 2015
Chairperson: Ms D Magadzi (ANC) (Acting)
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Meeting Summary

The National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI) spoke about the low capacity of South Africa to perform helicopter medical evacuation services. The dangers of current techniques for rescue missions using boats were highlighted, and the need for the South African Air Force (SAAF) to maintain its helicopter fleet and make them more available for emergencies was emphasised. The Committee accepted the seriousness of this situation, and recommended that NSRI provide a cost estimation and meet with the relevant government executive in the Department of Transport as well as the Department of Defence.

Uber, a smartphone app that acts as a transport network operator, spoke of the benefits of the expansion of the smartphone app, which include less congested cities and entrepreneurial and employment opportunities, were discussed. Uber hopes to create 15 000 jobs within the next two years, and has various plans in place to enable people who would normally not be considered for credit to receive it.

Uber raised a concern about the inability of the current National Land Transport Act to categorise transport operators correctly, and argued that certain regulations, such as route restriction for drivers, is not suited to the growth of Uber, or other innovative transport options.

The Committee raised concerns about changes in legislation to assist Uber, and the implications that these changes might have on a larger scale. The effects of the expansion of Uber on existing public transport was also discussed. It became clear that further interaction is necessary with multiple stakeholders from the public transport sector, at national and at local level. A Department of Transport representative said that it is in the process of considering the socioeconomic effects of proposed changes to the Act.

The Committee then heard from representatives of workers who had previously worked indirectly for PRASA through Metrorail. These workers had lost their jobs through a change of sub-contractors, even though some of them had been working there for up to fourteen years. The Committee said that they needed more information before they could take a position on the matter, and advised the representatives to meet with the Portfolio Committee on Labour.

Meeting report

Medical Evacuations from Ships at Sea: briefing by National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI)
Dr Cleeve Robertson, NSRI CEO, said that South African coastlines do not have sufficient helicopter capacity for the medical evacuations (medevacs) from the many vessels that pass. NSRI is made up of 35 stations along the coastline, and volunteers carry out almost all operations. It mostly uses small boats, although boats have a limited range of operation, especially during bad visibility. During an operation using these boats, a member of crew came dangerously close to mortal damage. This is part of the reason for NSRI’s meeting with the portfolio committee.

The NSRI contacts either the SAAF or private operators when their capacity is not sufficient for a rescue mission. Private operators charge at least R200 000 per rescue mission, which can double if more than one vessel is needed. The NSRI has medical crew and rescue swimmers that can support helicopters. These helicopters remove the various dangerous parts of the sea rescue process from the operations of rescue crew members. The boats are also put at risk during current procedures, as well as the patients. Stretchers and other infrastructure have been funded through the National Lottery Fund and others, but helicopters are needed for future rescue missions.

The NSRI has mostly liaised with SAAF for the use of helicopters, but various regulations make this difficult. The SAAF does not have operations capacity to do these rescues, and it needs to improve personnel and infrastructural capacity in the future. Only one South African pilot is licensed to land a helicopter on a vessel at sea, which underlines the need for improvement. The two departments, Defence and Transport, need to communicate to rectify this issue.

South Africa is a maritime country and has 12 000 ships docking at its harbours every year. It needs capacity to be able to rescue large numbers of people from sea should a serious accident happen in the future.

Mr C Hunsinger (DA) asked who would train helicopter pilots if personnel capacity was increased. Could the training be done locally? What are the international standards for rescue capacity based on how much naval traffic South Africa has?

Mr G Radebe (ANC) asked if universities or other institutions could be approached on the subject of personnel training. How many doctors does NSRI have as volunteers? The Committee needs to engage with the National Treasury to improve the infrastructure of this organisation.

Mr M de Freitas (DA) asked for clarity about the capacity of NSRI individually and the capacity of South Africa’s rescue institutions at large. Why has the capacity of NSRI and SAAF been so poorly maintained the past few years?

Ms S Xego (ANC) asked if other governmental departments, such as the Department of Health, should be consulted on this. How does NSRI interact with other institutions? Has there been any loss of life due to the use of boats instead of helicopters? What other challenges does NSRI face, and what governmental channels will it approach to address these?

In his response, Dr Robertson said that SAAF does have aircraft available, but the maintenance contracts for those have lapsed. These could be maintained and used, but they are not. Pilot, maintenance crew, engineering crew, and other engineers need extensive training. There has been a decline in the capacity of the crew over many years. There is not a particular ratio for shipping traffic to the size of helicopter medevac services, but it is a standard in parts of Europe to have multiple helicopters available.

The crews should hopefully be provided by SAAF, but many of SAAF helicopters have only a single engine and cannot fly out to sea. The rescue swimmers are available through NSRI, but paramedics and medical staff normally come through governmental provincial services. The rotation of paramedics is not as great as the rotation of doctors, but the capacity of medical staff is not as much of a concern.

The R200 000 quoted earlier is purely the paraffin cost to operate the aircraft, and does not include other costs that are related to using private operators. SA needs to have two helicopters ready for launch at various stations across the coast, because two helicopters need to go together for sea rescues in case one of them fails. The existing pilot staff would not need too much time to improve their capacity, as they are already at a high level.

Some passenger ships have up to 5000 passengers, and ships of this size do come past remote areas of South Africa regularly. If one of them were to have an accident, South Africa would not have the sufficient capacity to perform satisfactory rescues.

The Department of Health does provide medical staff and medical advice to NSRI. The NSRI also speaks to Home Affairs on issues like Ebola and other quarantining when performing rescues.

There has not been any loss of life, but there have recently been two situations where volunteer staff almost lost their life. This would be a crisis for South Africa at large and devastating to the NSRI.

Ms D Magadzi (ANC) said it was disappointing that the Deputy Director General in charge of this portfolio was not in attendance. The NSRI is important, and the Department of Transport needs to have a high-level individual engaging with such entities. The Departments of Health and of Defence should also be involved in these discussions. The Minister should be approached in future committee meetings on this.

Ms Magadzi said that Dr Robertson should offer a total cost estimation and a time frame for the improvements to capacity that need to be performed. The government executive responsible for this portfolio needs to do more than write mail to NSRI, and needs to meet with Dr Robertson or other NSRI individuals. Dr Robertson needs to make clear to various departments the assistance that NSRI needs from them. A holistic picture to improve the capacity of NSRI needs to be developed. The strength of entities like NSRI needs to be prioritised in the realisation of the National Development Plan.

Ms Magadzi invited Uber to present to the Committee. She reminded the Committee that Uber has caused clashes in the Western Cape and other areas of South Africa in the public transport sector.

Uber South Africa Technology briefing
Mr Jabavu Heshu, Public Policy Manager Africa at Uber, said that Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban and Port Elizabeth are some of the most important cities in Uber’s African plans. South Africa has proved to have massive growth potential for Uber. Uber is a technology company, but the actual face of the company is the partner drivers who conduct transport based on contact from the Uber smartphone app.

Mr Alon Lits, General Manager of Sub-Saharan Africa at Uber, said that Uber was launched in SA in 2013 in Johannesburg. South Africa was the first country outside the US that had three cities operational at the same time. Uber does not provide transport, it is a cellphone app that connects people who need transport with drivers who can pick them up. The app provides data about the name of the driver, the car, the fare for the proposed journey, and the waiting time for the driver to get to the passenger.

In 2014, over one million trips were booked on Uber in South Africa, and in 2015 two million trips were booked by June. Uber can connect people in less than five minutes in almost all parts of the cities in which it operates. Uber has over 2000 partner drivers, and creates powerful entrepreneurial opportunities. It expects to create 15000 jobs within the next two years in South Africa.

A critical aspect for Uber is that it complies with the National Land Transport Act (NLTA), and that it works within the existing public transport infrastructure in South Africa. Uber has been used in conjunction with the Gautrain and other public transport entities.

Uber encourages its partner drivers to own their own vehicles and has introduced various support methods. Finance schemes have started to empower people with no access to capital in order to buy Uber cars. Uber actually encourages people to use public transport as opposed to their own cars, and has already reduced congestion in Johannesburg.

The NLTA does not have an existing category for transport operators using a technology platform, and Uber does not identify itself with any of the existing categories. Route restrictions are not aligned with the kind of growth that Uber wants to create, and Uber needs to open a dialogue to improve the accommodation of Uber and other entities like it in this Act.

Mr M Mabika (NFP) asked whether Uber aims to create 15 000 jobs within the next two years, or whether it will have created 15 000 jobs in total within two years.

Mr T Mulaudzi (EFF) asked what Uber’s strategies were for operation in South Africa, with its relatively high crime rate. Will Uber expand to some rural towns, or will it stay in big cities only?

Ms S Xego said that Uber’s job creation potential is important to South Africa, but asked for more clarity on the financial implications of Uber partner drivers working with Uber.

Mr M de Freitas (DA) asked if Uber wanted to remove itself from responsibility for the compliance of its partner drivers with regulations. Traditional meter taxis initially did not accept the existence of Uber when it was introduced in Johannesburg; how has Uber dealt with this issue?

Mr C Hunsinger said that the rating system on the app is a great method for incentivising the quality of drivers. What is the current status of licences and outstanding licences of Uber partner drivers?

An MP asked how Uber’s strategies working within South Africa differ to their strategies elsewhere. It is problematic that Uber wants to go unregulated as a transport operator, because this will not be acceptable to other stakeholders in the public transport sector.

Mr Radebe said that the regulation and monitoring of Uber’s fares and prices are extremely important, because they could affect the livelihood of many who work in public transport. Has Uber engaged with the operators of existing public transport who are unhappy with Uber's growth?

Mr L Ramatlakane (ANC) asked how Uber could be considered a solution to South Africa’s public transport needs. Uber is a premium-quality option for public transport because of its prices, so how is it different to normal meter taxis? Who owns Uber, and who receives the profits that it makes? The legislation on public transport was recently changed to a network system that restricts people to certain routes. This change was enacted to accommodate various issues within South Africa, so would it really be a solution to remove these restrictions at the behest of Uber? Do the partner drivers of Uber have licences, and what regulations do they need to adhere to?

Ms D Carter (COPE) asked what the restrictions were for new drivers joining Uber. Are there restrictions to the time spent on the road, or other restrictions to monitor whether a driver is driving safely?

Mr M Sibande (ANC) said that legislation changes might have larger implications than Uber predicts. How does Uber monitor its drivers, and how does it react to various Uber cars being impounded? What is Uber’s approach to gender equality in its employment and partnering with drivers? Uber could be problematic in South Africa, because of the importance of the taxi industry, especially in impoverished areas.

Ms Magadzi said that imbizos with Uber and provincial and local stakeholders would be beneficial to the rectification of these issues. Legislature and regulations can be discussed and other stakeholders can have a chance to engage.

Mr Lits replied that Uber wants to have created 15 000 jobs in total by the next two years. Uber has worked hard to empower its partners to support themselves by giving them the chance to receive credit they otherwise would not qualify for. Uber partner drivers have been proposed as community watch members, as they will frequent areas at all times and could provide good opportunities for collaboration with law enforcement.

Uber wants to operate in all cities with a population of over 200 000, which means there is great potential for growth and expansion within South Africa. In order to partner with Uber, drivers need a professional driver's permit and an additional background check. Drivers go through an interview to monitor their basic city knowledge and customer service capabilities. Vehicles need to be roadworthy and have commercial insurance, along with passenger and third party liability. Mechanical and optical checks are performed before the vehicles are allowed onto the platforms. In Johannesburg, the vehicles have to be 2012 models or newer. There are no joining fees or annual fees for partner drivers, but Uber takes a 20% cut of the fare of each journey. Uber fares are 35% cheaper than meter taxis, but this does not transfer to lower earnings by drivers. The higher demand has increased the business of these drivers.

In most countries, regulation is lagging behind innovation and this is why Uber engages with provincial and national policymakers. The drivers that have access to Uber are in compliance with the various regulations of the locality. Taxi drivers need to be consulted, and the various protests and altercations make this clear. Uber wants to empower these people through financial opportunities and access to capital they may not have had otherwise.

Uber drivers in South Africa receive some of the best feedback in the world, and the rating system reflects this. Uber is excited to see how technology can make cities better, and would like to use the data it gathers to make integrated transport plans. Many existing taxi services use Uber to supplement their income, so Uber does not see itself as damaging the market in South Africa. Uber does not stand surety for its drivers, but as it grows and empowers its drivers, banks will realise the potential that these drivers would have if they were given the capital to own their own cars.

Uber is committed to gender equality and aims to achieve 1 million female drivers by 2020. It could also enable young people to work part-time while they study. Pilot studies carried out in Kenya have indicated that deaf or hard of hearing people might be empowered by new functionality features in new versions of the Uber app.

Mr Heshu said it is completely possible for Uber operators to comply with the NLTA, but planning authorities are now categorising Uber partners as meter taxi drivers. Every Uber driver is in the process of attaining operating licences under the Act. Uber needs to respect players in the existing market and absolutely wants to open a dialogue with taxi drivers and other public transport stakeholders. The reach of Uber is increasing, as its seamlessness and safety become more and more well known. Uber is in constant dialogue with the MEC of Transport in Gauteng and other regulatory bodies across the country. Uber envisages changes in the regulations around transport operating services. These regulations should best maximise the efficiency of operators and the partners, and removals of route restrictions in certain sections of the Act would improve the efficiency of many different stakeholders in the public transport sector. Uber has communicated with the Department of Transport to begin these changes.

Mr Sipho Dibakwane (acting Chief Director in Office of Director General: Department of Transport) said that the existing legislation recognises transport operators. The role of government in introducing new processes needs to recognise social, economic and political implications. The Department is currently redrafting the NTLA, and it is not only engaging with Uber, but with many entities, in modifications to the existing Act.

Mr Ramatlakane said that further consideration and discussion will be needed with the Committee before Uber receives approval for its proposed changes to existing regulations.

Ms Magadzi agreed with this, and said that the premium markets that Uber is working in are not of primary concern to the improvement of the transport options for most South Africans. The Committee looks forward to engaging with Uber in future discussions around this issue.

Ex-PRASA sub-contracted workers: briefing
Mr Ngxingweni, representative of employees who had worked at PRASA, said that he is representing about 500 individuals who had worked a minimum of three years, and a maximum of fourteen years, indirectly for Metrorail. The modus operandi of Metrorail was to hire sub-contractor service providers, but these 500 people were not supposed to be affected by the hiring and firing of these service providers. Metrorail assured these people that they would be considered for hiring when the sub-contractor positions were vacated.

The sub-contractors were hired by PRASA and had no sway within the organisation, and PRASA made several promises to these sub-contractors and individuals. Learnership programmes were introduced to accommodate the removal of the 500 individuals with the replacement of other sub-contractors. These learnership programmes excluded the 500 people, which they felt was unfair treatment. These individuals were then left without jobs when PRASA did not continue their opportunity for employment. Certain meetings were held in which the legitimate expectations of all parties were discussed.

Representatives of the workers, including one Mr Dlamini, met with PRASA and the Department of Transport, after which it was decided that an official would collect the CVs of the 500 people to determine a new position for them. As of now, not one of these people has found re-employment with PRASA. The Chief of Staff for the Minister of Transport wrote a letter, in which he acknowledged that these people are indentured, and that they have not been seriously considered in the plans of PRASA. However, these 500 people have still not been considered.

Mr Maswanganyi asked for the response of PRASA and the sub-contracting agencies to this matter.

Ms Magadzi agreed that the Committee needs access to all documents related to this issue.

Mr Mabika asked why this issue is not being pursued through legal channels, and questioned whether the Committee was the appropriate body for these representatives to interact with.

Mr Ramatlakane said that other mechanisms should be used for the assistance of these workers. It is not clear whether these workers were working for PRASA, or Metrorail, or even both. The Department of Transport needs to discuss this matter further with all parties concerned. The Committee is not the body that can mediate the resolution of this.

Ms Carter said that the biggest problem in this situation is government’s continued use of labour brokers. This process should be abandoned in the future labour plans of government entities.

Mr Sibande said that more documentation needs to be provided, and that more entities, such as the CCMA, need to be consulted on this issue.

Ms Magadzi agreed that more information from the law firm representing the workers is needed before the Committee can take a position.

Mr Dibakwane, from the Department of Transport, agreed that more information is needed before a position can be adopted.

Ms Magadzi said that the Committee would engage with different entities to gather the required information, and the matter may be referred to the Portfolio Committee on Labour. The representatives of these workers are also invited to send documentation to the Portfolio Committee on Labour.

Mr Ngxingweni agreed that it is a labour dispute, but that the problem is based on the policies of PRASA. These policies are not aligned with the philosophies of the country’s plans at large. He thanked the Committee for the opportunity to present.

The Committee adopted the minutes of its 18 August 2015 meeting.

The meeting was adjourned.


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