Transporting the nation

Transporting the nation

The South African Transport Ministry, which has long been dogged by unpopular decisions and leaders supposedly not fit for the job, is now under the leadership of Ben Martins. FOCUS explores the credentials of the man, who it is hoped, will turn things around.

In June, President Jacob Zuma indulged in some early spring cleaning, reshuffling his cabinet ministers. The transport portfolio has always been a touchy subject, especially recently under the leadership of Sibusiso Ndebele between 2009 and 2012.

On June 12, Ndebele was succeeded by Ben Martins (full name Dikobe Benedict Martins), who in 1994 became a Member of Parliament. He has held the posts of Chairperson of the Portfolio Committee on Home Affairs and, prior to his appointment as Minister of Transport, was Deputy Minister of Public Enterprises.

His first few months in office have included many keynote speeches at different forums and functions. Speaking at the opening of the Mthatha Taxi Rank, Martins acknowledged that “a safe and reliable transport infrastructure is a key input in the country’s effort to accelerate economic growth and social development in both urban and rural areas.”

In October, speaking at the launch of the Integrated Pubic Transport Authority in Cape Town – created to facilitate an integrated approach to public transport in the city – Martins reiterated the dire need for a balance in infrastructure among all communities.

He has noted that government has a role to play by rehabilitating existing infrastructure and also improving law enforcement, while imploring the bus and the taxi secors to contribute by ensuring that vehicles are always in good condition, and that drivers are well trained, and rested before travelling. The public, too, needs to report corruption and negligence as and when they happen.

Notable points, but what else does Martins bring to the table? Born on September 2, 1956, in Alexandra, Johannesburg, Martins attended St Joseph’s College in Durban and Coronationville High School in Johannesburg. He also attended art classes at Bill Ainsley’s Studio and at the Federated Union of Black Artists (FUBA).

Martins’s tertiary academic qualifications are impressive indeed. He holds a Master of Law in International Law from the University of Cape Town, a Bachelor of Law from the University of Natal (now University of KwaZulu-Natal), a Bachelor of Arts from the University of South Africa (Unisa) and a Post-Graduate Diploma in Management Practice from the University of Cape Town.

Martins became involved in politics in his early 20s, joining the Black Consciousness Movement. He worked for the Community Care Centre and Edenvale Ecumenical Centre in Pietermaritzburg from 1977 to 1983, and has been active in the African National Congress (ANC) and the South African Communist Party (SACP).

His early political career was understandably not without its troubles. In 1978 he was charged and acquitted for producing banned Steve Biko T-shirts. He joined the ANC in 1979 and later became a member of its armed wing, Umkhnto we Sizwe (MK), which saw him travel to and from Botswana and Lesotho frequently, meeting those in exile, before being arrested in 1983. He was kept in solitary confinement and tortured for seven months, then imprisoned on Robben Island. He was released only in 1991.

He has been a member of the Political Bureau and Central Committee of the South African Communist Party, the Council of the Robben Island Museum, and the executive committee of the Caversham Centre (for writers and the arts).

An ever-keen patron of the arts, Martins contributed poetry, graphics and essays on art and culture to Staffrider publications in the 1970s. His poetry book, Baptism of Fire, was published in 1984. His artwork forms part of the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal’s Killie Campbell Collection, the Pretoria and Johannesburg Art Galleries, and numerous private collections. He is a patron of the Congress of South African Writers.

A cultured man who certainly has political experience and academic clout, Martins will need to put all he knows into practice – but he does seem to have a grasp on the basics needed to address South Africa’s transportation sector conundrum. We wait to see.

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