After twenty years of first finding ways to kickstart the Gautrain project, then building and running the urban rapid-rail system, Gautrain Management Agency CEO Jack van der Merwe has retired.
His skills are not lost to Gauteng, however, as he is set to lead the newly established Transport Authority of Gauteng (TAG) from March 1.
TAG will seek to integrate the provincial government’s public transport efforts, as it plans and implements an integrated public transport system for the Gauteng city region.
Van der Merwe’s experience is also sought after in the rest of the world.
Twice a year he flies to the UK as a visiting lecturer on leadership and megaproject management at Oxford University.
But what does he teach the students at this prestigious university? What did he learn from his two decades at the helm of a project most people were convinced would fail before the first train even pulled away from the station?
“If you are going to build an infrastructure project, you have to appoint the right people,” says Van der Merwe. “You need people with the right skills, rather than those with the right connections.”
“The second thing is for your team to buy into the dream – then you are about halfway there already.”
Van der Merwe often referred to the Gautrain as “magic” during his tenure at the GMA.
“A third important lesson is that a country can only move forward if it invests in infrastructure. Doing this has a ripple effect through country,” adds Van der Merwe.
“It also means that you have a long-term vision for the country.”
Political stability is equally important.
“We announced the Gautrain project in 2000. Then we told the world in 2003 that we want to build the system and that they must submit bids to construct and operate the Gautrain.
“This meant we asked people to trust us up to 2026 with their money.”
Van der Merwe believes that the proposed 150-km phase 2 of the Gautrain should be developed as a matter of urgency.
“Globally, we have two forces colliding – the trends towards megacities and cleaning up the environment. Public transport gives us an answer to problems in both spheres – reducing congestion and pollution.
“A key point of departure is that public transport is for all – those in cars and those without – and is not a nice to have. It is a reality,” adds Van der Merwe.
“In our country public transport is a mode of force, not choice, and that allows public transport operators to provide such poor service.
“We need to build an integrated public transport system for South Africa that caters for travel from door to door, last mile included.”
Van der Merwe emphasises the value the 80 km, first-phase Gautrain system has unlocked.
“In 2018, 59% of all office developments in the country were around Gautrain stations. Studies have shown that the Gauteng province has achieved 2.6 times return on every rand spent on the Gautrain. Gautrain 2 is an absolute necessity. My plea is to finance the project and to make it happen.”
Van der Merwe adds that South Africa, as a country, should not be underestimated.
“We have the capability to realise President Cyril Ramaphosa’s dream to expand the country’s infrastructure.
“In 2006 I got an email that said the Gautrain has been nominated for a prize in the UK that looked at private-public partnerships (PPPs) all over the world. (PPPs are known as private funding initiatives in the UK.)
“Metja [Ledwaba, from Mazwai Attorneys] and I dressed in our tuxedos and we went to the Dorchester hotel in London.
“There were 1 500 people there and they asked us who we were, and we said Van der Merwe and Ledwaba.
“They asked what we were doing there and we said we are from Gauteng, South Africa.
“I got the impression they thought we were just there to make up the numbers!
“At the end of the night the big prize of the evening was the best PPP deal to sign in the world and suddenly photos of the Gautrain popped up on the screen – the Gautrain was announced as the winning PPP project.
“This remains a tremendous feather in the cap of South Africa and the team who worked on this project, taking it from dreams to reality.”