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Leveraging global expertise to create local excellence

Nthabiseng Kubheka, CEO of Bombela Operating Company, discusses the importance of partnerships, building strategic leadership, economic inclusion and the commitment of employees to a vision of delivering on a dream of an efficient fast-train service.

The CEO of Bombela Operating Company (a joint venture led by RATP Dev), Nthabiseng Kubheka, is proud that the Gautrain can be used as a benchmark of what localised world-class public transport systems can look like in the Southern Africa region.

How did you come to be involved in the world of transport?

My career spans over 27 years working mainly in energy, a key sector of South Africa’s economy, where I was overseeing the efficient and successful implementation of mega-infrastructure projects, initially for our power utility Eskom, and later for the Power business of General Electric (GE: NYSE).

Both opportunities have afforded me the privilege of being mentored by industry leaders while actively contributing to building a better-resourced South Africa, which for me is a country-duty that I hold with the highest regard. The transportation sector is an equally important and strategic sector of our economy, one that is key to unlocking socio-economic development and contributing to a carbon-free world by 2050 through moving people and goods from road to rail in mass.

Nthabiseng Kubheka, BOC CEO

When the opportunity to roll up my sleeves and lead BOC presented itself, I took it with both hands knowing that delivering on the efficient and successful day-to-day running of the Gautrain project would be a game changer for my career.

I am a patriotic South African who wants to see us progress into a super economy in Africa and beyond. My decision to leverage the lessons and skills acquired in the energy sector to contribute to building much-needed capacity in the rail transportation sector was a no brainer. It made perfect sense.

As a country we should take pride in building our economy from the bottom up by prioritising leading from the front while training and upskilling as many of our people to occupy strategic positions as possible. This is our country, we need to build it ourselves, no-one will do that for us.

Prioritise education, humble yourself and be willing to learn from those who have been there before you and always do good at home, in the community and ultimately for your country.

What previous experience have you found most useful to your role as CEO of BOC, a joint venture led by RATP Dev?

At Eskom I learnt the project management of complex build projects; it taught me the importance of starting with the end in mind. Clarity of strategy and implementation ensures that you deliver on time and within costs as you have an immediate and long-term view of the impact of your day-to-day tasks.

At General Electric I learnt the importance of partnering with the best in the world and localising global expertise to benefit your local context. Countries and companies that are globally recognised for making gigantic strides in their growth have done so by collaborating, partnering and in some instances developing “glocal” (global and local) best practices.

Today we look back with pride at how we have leveraged our parent company RATP, the third-largest integrated transport leader globally and world leader in high-capacity rail networks. Today the Gautrain is globally recognised as a mode of transport that visitors and locals alike trust because of its predictability and consistency.

All of which has been influenced by the lessons learnt from other RATP Dev operations across Africa and beyond. For example, some of the Gautrain’s achievements to date include:

    • 98% service availability and on-time performance.
    • Over 131.6-million passenger trips since inception, 1.3-million of which were connecting travellers to OR Tambo International Airport.
    • 24 200 fewer cars, contributing to reduced emissions and access to efficient public transport.
    • An estimated R1.7-billion contribution to economy year-on-year.
    • A R46-billion total contribution to GDP; 245 000 jobs added through property development.

We are privileged to have been a part of the collective team that has delivered on the above. None of this would have been achieved without collaborating with all our other partners and without the unwavering commitment of our employees.

BOC leadership mentoring during International Women’s Day 2024

Together this collective is flying South Africa’s flag high. To them we say Thank you, Enkosi, Siyabulela.

If you were able to tell your 15-year-old self what position you have now achieved, would she have been surprised or would she have thought, “That’s about right”?

Probably she would have thought “That’s about right” with a disclaimer that “There is still a whole lot more to do”. The country is not where we envisaged it would be by now, despite making significant gains in our 30 years of democracy.

A fully fledged and integrated transport system, a lower carbon footprint and a reduction in unemployment, especially among the youth and women, not to mention a fully diversified energy mix, are now needed to take our economy to significant growth levels.

Who have been inspirations to you along the path towards where you are now?

First and foremost, I am inspired by the resilience of the human spirit. Secondly, my parents, who have imparted in me the values of hard work, respect and paying it forward. Lastly, throughout my career I have had colleagues and bosses who have encouraged me to stay focused and lift others while I rise.

How would you describe your leadership style?

I am a fair and a firm leader who is empathetic and believes in accountability and integrity.

As an award-winning company in gender empowerment, please tell us what are the things you do or what is in your company environment that contributes to that achievement?

Diversity, equity and inclusion are important for any country and for businesses operating in a market. For us in South Africa, this is further compounded by the need to fast-track the inclusion of more of our people into the economic value chain. Therefore, prioritising the segments of our population that are under-represented in the economic value chain is an imperative that is at the heart of how we deliver value to South Africa.

The concept of “Ubuntu” (I am because you are), is a reminder that we owe our existence to all South Africans and those that came before us.

As part of our business strategy, we prioritise our communities and within them our youth, women, people with disabilities and the elderly. This we do through our corporate social investment projects, intentionally supporting their small and medium enterprises, the creation of quality and sustainable jobs and skills development programmes.

We employ over 500 locals, 35% of whom are the youth and 50% are women.
We provide mentorship, 250 hours of tutoring per year and three-year scholarships to the youth of Alexandra township through our Sizanani mentoring programme.

Who are the shareholders of BOC?

The Bombela Operating Company’s shareholders are RATP Dev (63%) and our local partner SPG (37%).

What is the main mandate of BOC?

Bombela Operating Company (BOC) currently operates and maintains the Gautrain, which is a 160 km-per-hour high-speed train that safely and efficiently connects Johannesburg and Pretoria in just 42 minutes. As part of the operations, we manage 10 stations, associated parking spaces, security control centres, 125 Gautrain buses, 23 midibuses and an adaptative Operations Control Centre, which is our centre of operational excellence.

The Gautrain is a best-practice case study that may be used as a benchmark of what localised world-class public transport systems can look like in the Southern Africa region and beyond.

To whom or what does BOC report? Or who is the client?

The BOC reports to the Bombela Concession Company who in turn report to the Gauteng Management Agency.

What are you most proud of in terms of BOC’s operations?

Serving our customers and seeing their satisfaction with every trip that we make. Also having an experienced local team that is willing and capable of meeting the demands of our operations.

How many staff are employed at BOC?

Over 500 directly and many more indirectly.

Do BOC leaders engage in national, continental and international forums on issues relating to public transport (eg Africa Rail, the SARA Rail Conference)?

We participate in industry events as part of adding our voice to building the sector and ensuring that we promote local expertise and capabilities.

What role can RATP Dev play in supporting South Africa’s vision of building world-class cities in South Africa?

The parent company RATP is 70 years old and RATP Dev has been in existence for 20 years. It is the third-largest provider of integrated transport systems and a global leader in high-capacity rail networks. It has 24 000 employees across 15 countries and makes over 3.8-billion travels every year.

South Africa can leverage the experience that RATP Dev already has in the South African and African markets and globally to deliver on its vision of building world-class cities. For example, RATP manages the metro lines in Paris and the surrounding areas, which is one of the densest multi-model networks in the world, doing 10-million trips a day post-COVID. That massive scale means that there are lots of lessons and expertise that can be borrowed from this wealth of experience.

In addition, as our leaders plan for the imminent extension of the current Gautrain line and for essential issues such as democratisation, RATP Dev can provide valuable insights on their experiences in this regard. For example:

Across various types of transit systems such as the automated metros which are currently being generalised in Paris in the context of the Olympic Games to a wide range of buses operated across Europe, the US and the MENA and Africa region.

The Gautrain is a best-practice case study that may be used as a benchmark of what localised world-class public transport systems can look like in the Southern Africa region and beyond.

Important topical issues such as the future of transport and the role it can play in climate-change mitigation; increased efficiency and operations through digitalisation and apps (helping to track fraud, improve security, etc); as well as predictive maintenance and improvement of working conditions for workers (exoskeletons, VR, etc).

Public Private Partnerships are essential in fast-tracking infrastructure development and growing the economy. This has been very evident with the success of the Gautrain project.

What are some of the lessons you have learnt through delivering on the Gautrain project?

Through the Gautrain project we have appreciated the learnings on the importance of partnering with a long-term commitment in mind, being agile and adaptive when the situation calls for it. For example, during the Covid-19 pandemic we had to adapt to the new reality of reconfiguring how we deliver our best service in a very challenging, fast-changing and very restrictive environment.

Credit: Gautrain Management Agency

The Gautrain serves as an example of how PPPs can effectively tackle transportation challenges and respond to the community’s expectations.

While governments might not always have the expertise or funds to enhance transport infrastructure and service offering, setting clear objectives to private operators with a strong track record can be a powerful tool. Under the vigilance of strict performance metrics, operators can deliver an excellent service.

What advice would you give to South Africa’s next generation of leaders?

Prioritise education, humble yourself and be willing to learn from those who have been there before you and always do good at home, in the community and ultimately for your country. Good deeds attract good opportunities from people you may not have thought would notice you.

Also read: Interview with the new CEO of the Gautrain Management Agency.


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