The Transnet Maritime School of Excellence is paraded in the media every year for its purported achievements in training young South Africans for skilled jobs in the maritime transport environment.
However, there are disturbing indications that this rosy picture of happy graduates masks a programme that is chaotic and poorly planned, and has not provided for the practical experience that is key to young recruits receiving qualifications that are worth anything.
In addition, there are persistent rumours of nepotism and corruption swirling around the institution.
The school, based in Durban but with satellite campuses in Richards Bay, Cape Town and Port Elizabeth, was established by Transnet in 2013 to address the shortage of technical skills in the maritime sector.
One student, who asked not to be identified, told amaBhungane that a much-publicised Durban graduation ceremony in September 2016 – attended by bigwigs from Transnet and the department of public enterprises – was little more than a sham.
“In total we are about 100-odd students … In the eyes of the public, Transnet is looking very good ... However, the reality is that what they were sold is actually a lie.
"We have ‘graduated’, but with no practical experience, so in actual fact our graduation was not beneficial to us because our certificates are not valid until we obtain practicals.”
Attempts by students to raise their concerns, have been brushed off or ignored by Transnet
Many students gave up previous employment to join the so-called “Youth Development Programme” and feel cheated.
Now students have been sent home to kick their heels while Transnet conducts an unspecified “investigation” into “concerns” regarding the Maritime School.
Transnet announced the probe late last year in response to detailed questions from amaBhungane, but has provided no indication of what kind of investigation is being done, when it began, who is conducting it and what its terms of reference might be.
The problems at the school have been building for some time, despite repeated attempts by students to raise issues with Transnet management, first locally and then nationally.
They have consistently been brushed off or ignored.
On August 30, 2016, representatives of the 2014 intake wrote to Transnet chief executive Siyabonga Gama to bring to his attention various problems associated with the programme.
The email is damning, claiming that Transnet “has misled us and has sold us false dreams”.
"... students were promised a pole position for permanent jobs in various arms of Transnet"
Students, who opted to remain anonymous for fear of victimisation, told Gama that Transnet advertised a course lasting 18 months – which was in line with previous courses offered by the old maritime training body that the school replaced.
On selection, they were promised accommodation, food, training and a small remittance – all at Transnet expense – and a pole position for permanent jobs in various arms of the giant transport parastatal.
But the students complained that months went by before they were eventually presented with a contract to sign, which then provided for 35 months for general purpose ratings (GPR) positions.
Ratings must earn recognised seamanship qualifications, which include theory modules but are dependent on students completing practical internships on board working ships.
The letter states:
“Students agreed to this only because they were made to understand that our sea-time practical experience would take up 22 months.
"Students were pressurised to sign the contract within 24 hours or leave.”
Some students were "sent to a private supermarket to work as bakers, merchandisers, and cashiers"
The students told Gama they were informed there were 40 positions available for training as general purpose ratings, yet to date none of these students have obtained berths for sea-time.
The letter says they were told in May 2015 that practical sea-time would start in July.
Then the date was shifted to September 2015, then to January 2016, then to April 2016.
Instead, students were trained in freight handling and some were sent to a private supermarket in Pietermaritzburg, working as bakers, merchandisers, and cashiers – at Transnet expense.
On August 22, 2016, they were finally called to a meeting where they were informed that due to the “economic crisis” the GPR programme has been put on hold until further notice.
The students raise pertinent questions, including whether management did not know that they needed sea-time and why students were accepted if Transnet had no budget or certainty about shipboard training.
They complain of bullying and intimidation and appeal to the Transnet boss to intervene:
“Mr Gama, we humbly appreciate the time you have taken to look into these grievances … we are not happy and we are now seeming as liars and people who have sold dreams to our families.”
The students claim they never received a response from Gama.
"...widespread perception that money is being siphoned off to service providers, especially of accommodation..."
Instead, more promises were made that practical training would begin in November and December.
Then, in November 2016, the students were told to vacate their Transnet-sponsored accommodation and then sent home.
They have had no subsequent communication about their prospects in 2017.
It appears that the problems are not limited to the ratings trainees.
It is understood that cargo handling trainees have also had no proper practical training in the Durban port – partly because of resistance from unionised workers who fear displacement – and that their contracts, which were supposed to end in October 2016, have had to be extended to March 2017.
There is also a widespread perception that money is being siphoned off to service providers, especially of accommodation, which is a major cost of the programme amounting to about R500,000 per student.
In response to detailed questions, Transnet issued only a brief statement: “Transnet is currently investigating concerns relating to the Maritime School of Excellence.
"We prefer not to comment on the matter at this stage until the investigation is concluded … it would be premature to comment when investigations are not concluded.”
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