They are employed at the first of a kind - R1 billion train manufacturing facility in Dunnottar in Ekurhuleni, about 50km east of Johannesburg.
It is at this new 72 hectares plant where they are employed by Gibela to build Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (PRASA)'s rolling stock of modern commuter trains.
Gibela – a partnership between Alstom, a multi-national world leader in integrated transport systems and South Africa’s uBumbano Rail and New Africa Rail – was launched in 2014 to deliver on two major contracts for PRASA. These are to manufacture 580 state-of-the-art X’Trapolis Mega commuter trains over 10 years to replace the aged current fleet for Metrorail and the supply of technical services and spares for the trains over their first 19 years in service.
The cutting-edge train production facility, which was unveiled on Thursday by President Cyril Ramaphosa, is a critical hub of providing onsite maintenance and engineering services, a training facility for railway-specific artisan skills and an engineering centre of excellence.
The construction of the factory commenced in January 2016 with manufacturing activities starting in 2017.
Over 400 people employed
According to Gibela, currently, more than 400 people are directly employed and it anticipates that the number will rise to more than 1 500 once the factory is in full production.
Of these, more than 200 are engineers and technicians – including 80 women who have been trained and deployed as full-time Gibela employees; 50 skilled and semi-skilled artisans and technicians have been recruited, and 65 apprentices selected to begin their apprenticeships at the new training centre since last year.
Youth such as Mapula Tsebela (25) a semi-skilled mechanical filter at the factory is one of the previously unemployed youths who has benefited from the project.
Responsible for the internal installations like door trimmings, roof arks and seats, Tsebela from neighbouring Tsakane Township told SAnews that the project has changed her life by giving her an opportunity to be employed full time.
She found out about the project through a website, applied and got employed in April 2018.
"The six months working here has changed me. It has been a great experience since I am fresh from college after graduating in mechanical engineering at Ekhuruleni East College. This plant has created a great experience for me and many other youth in this area," she said.
Another youth, who was employed by the project, is Sibusiso Simelane - an electrical filter who started working last year November after hearing about the project from the Department of Labour.
Simelane said he had to undergo further skills training which was offered by the company.
"This project has changed my life because I'm now part of history. This is a big project for South Africa and I'm part of making history and even generations which will follow will know about this project. It has changed my life."
The youth who spoke to SAnews at the factory said the plant is helping to address the most important challenge in South Africa today – unemployment, especially among the youth.
The overall employment equity constitutes 49% female and 51% male with 635 full-time employees, 90% of whom are Black, according to Gibela.
To meet the demanding local content requirement of at least 65%, Gibela has taken on board 54 South African suppliers to supply materials, parts and services. This has created more than 4 700 jobs which the company is supporting through its activities.
Looking ahead over the next 10 years, it is planned for the training centre to skill over 6 700 artisans, about 2 000 engineering technicians and nearly 600 professional engineers across South Africa’s rail sector.
In addition to this, the factory has awarded 250 South African students for study in rail-related fields at South African tertiary institutions.
Factory a milestone for rail in SA
Speaking at the unveiling of the factory to the public, President Ramaphosa said the factory is a great moment both for the development of passenger rail in South Africa, the economy, industrialisation and manufacturing in the country.
The President went on to welcome the investment commitment, saying this project demonstrates the value of the partnership between the government, its agencies and the private sector, ensuring that public investment in infrastructure is effectively leveraged to promote industrialisation, localisation and job creation.
"When we talk about the expansion of our economy, it is a place like this and people like you that we are talking about."
After decades of under-investment in new trains for passenger rail transport, the President said this investment signifies a new era in the modernisation of the commuter rail network.
Restoring manufacturing and creating jobs
This factory will have a profound impact not only in the sphere of public transport but also in developing the country’s manufacturing capacity, President Ramaphosa said.
"For instead of simply importing new train sets, we have used this opportunity to invest in local industry, capabilities and skills."
This gives concrete expression to the government's determination – as articulated in the framework agreement adopted at the Jobs Summit which identified the growth of South Africa's manufacturing base as a key priority.
After years of decline, President Ramaphosa said the government is determined to restore manufacturing as a growing sector of the economy, in large part because it has great potential to create jobs, support secondary industries and increase the export capacity.
"This factory will demonstrate that South Africa has advanced manufacturing capabilities that will only gain in value over time."
Transforming the rail sector
Turning to the rail sector, the President was of the view that the factory will serve as a catalyst for the transformation of passenger rail services and public transport more broadly.
“It demonstrates our determination to develop passenger rail as a critical enabler of economic growth and social development.
"Our railways must become the arteries of a growing economy that brings meaningful improvement in people’s lives."
Vandalism of trains
Meanwhile, Transport Minister Blade Nzimande said he is concerned about vandalism of the trains and rail infrastructure.
“Mr President we hope that you will help in stopping the vandalism that we encounter. On Saturday, I will be convening an Imbizo in the Western Cape which will look into this.”
He added that the plant speaks to a number of key government objectives such as industrial policy plan, modernisation, investment and Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment (B-BBEE).