JOHANNESBURG Metropolitan Bus Services (Metrobus) does not have cash for basic operations, with its liquidity severely strained by a R105m overdraft.

Metrobus, one of two bus companies run by a municipality in South Africa, is being earmarked for privatisation. It transported almost 4-million commuters in the first quarter of this year.

According to a report to the City of Johannesburg, Metrobus had by March - nine months into its financial year - recorded a loss of R23m, with R13m accumulated between January and March.

It was expected that rising fuel costs would increase the entity's debt burden. Metrobus passenger numbers missed targets, leading to a R5m drop in revenue.

The city is struggling in general to account for its finances and may not be the best entity to run a bus company. But private operators are likely to increase fares and the public will have little appetite for this - as evidenced by the protests against the Gauteng e-tolls.

Transport analyst Paul Browning said yesterday that Metrobus lacked clear direction. It was caught in a "management triangle" between the city, the board and management, which created room for political interference.

Nico de Jager, Democratic Alliance transport spokesman on the city council, said the cash crisis was partly due to managers being suspended for questioning operations and figures, and Metrobus spending millions on consultants.

He said from January to March, consultants were overpaid by 350% on the R170000 budgeted for their services.

Mr de Jager said there were not enough bus drivers to service all the routes and Metrobus had wasted big amounts of money buying the wrong spare parts for buses that needed repairs.

However, the South African Municipal Workers Union rejected reports that Metrobus was not making money as "the buses on the streets are always overloaded".

Union spokesman David Makhura said the income the company generated was not spent on activities related to its core objectives. If the company corrected its mismanagement problems, there was a future for Metrobus, he said.

stones@bdfm.co.za