PUBLIC LAUNCH of the Southern Africa Railways Association at a function attended by the Zimbabwean transport minister in Harare on May 22 is a hopeful sign. SARA was founded in April last year, and it counts among its 10 members the 1304 km Benguela Railway, reconstruction of which is getting under way following a barter deal with an Italian civil engineering company (p432). While this is not the first time that attempts have been made to rebuild the line - opened in 1931 to take copper and other minerals to the Angolan port of Lobito from the rich mining areas of Zambia and the Congo - the prospects look more encouraging this time. Provided that civil war does not erupt again, the Benguela could soon start bringing economic benefits to Angola’s fertile uplands.
SARA has been set up specifically ’to promote the common business interests of railways in Southern Africa’, and to encourage the development and growth of the railway transport industry there. Missing from the membership list is the newly formed Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer Congolais, which has taken over management of the railways in the Democratic Republic of Congo from Sizarail following that company’s seizure by Laurent Kabila’s army in April (RG 6.97 p358). Given that an American mining company has already reached agreement with the Kabila regime to revive the zinc and copper mines that are likely to provide a stable traffic flow for the Benguela, there seems some chance that SNCC may be persuaded to make a commitment to the objectives set by SARA. Progress depends heavily on there being no further outbreaks of hostilities.
While Tanzania Zambia Railways Authority also belongs to SARA, it faces steadily increasing competition from services operated by other SARA members. A recent report on Tazara submitted to the Tanzanian government shocked ministers because of the dire state of the railway’s finances, not least because it is owed around US$7m by mining companies and other shippers. Zambian Transport Minister Gilbert Mululu said that he was ’initiating moves to ensure that Tazara does not collapse’, but the future for the Chinese-built line is as uncertain as ever.
Despite this, we are encouraged that the Cape gauge railways are working together towards common objectives. The spirit of co-operation and the professional attitude shown by SARA now need to filter further north to start turning round the long-suffering railways of the sub-Saharan region. o