It would be a tad unfair to compare Gauteng Premier Nomvula Mokonyane’s “state of the province” speech on Monday to the terrible Vogon poetry used as unfailing torture in “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, but that she seems to have rubbed handfuls of salt into wounds on all sides of the toll roads and billings debacles is obvious. By STEPHEN GROOTES.
The last few years have seen massive construction on some of the biggest and busiest roads in the country, between Johannesburg and Pretoria. Huge gantries have been erected, loops are now in roads where they were not before, strange vans carrying arrows pointing this way and that have marked the beginning of a long stretch of traffic. There’s even been the slightly ominous “road closed for blasting” signs. All of this has been seen by hundreds of thousands of people every day. Sometimes for hours at a time. And strangely it’s only now that people have begun to realise what they’re in for, they’re all rather cross. But they have a champion in Gauteng Premier Nomvula Mokonyane.
The people at the South African National Roads Agency must feel like Vogons at the moment. That ugly alien race from Douglas Adams’ “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”. The one with the third worst poetry in the universe and whose brain is actually evolved from a diseased liver. In the book there’s the famous scene (just after the line “the alien ships hung in mid-air like bricks don’t”) where the main character, Arthur Dent, digs himself into the mud to stop earthmovers from demolishing his house. He hadn’t bothered to keep up to date with the local planning permission department and thus hadn’t objected to a new highway being built on the land occupied by his home. And he didn’t read the document that was in the second basement, in an office behind the locked-up door that had a friendly sign on it: “Beware of leopard”.
A few pages later in the book, the Earth is demolished because humans hadn’t bothered to keep an eye on the local galactic planning office stationed at Alpha Centauri, a mere 4.3 light years away.
The point of this is that Gautengers have known for years that roads that are currently free were going to be tolled. And no one seemed to care. Until Sanral announced how much it was going to cost. That’s when the mud-like stuff really hit the circular cooling device. Since then, there’s been much wailing and gnashing of teeth. Some of those teeth are seriously powerful. First there was Cosatu’s “this will create a two-tier transport system, one for the rich and one of the poor who don’t have any alternative”, then there was the threat of a strike.
None of this was helped by the news that at least some of the money from a driver’s pocket was going overseas. To Austria of all places. The roads were built with the help of a firm called Kapsch. And it’s a massive project, a long-term investment. Which means that about R300 million will be going from the pockets of Gauteng drivers to the joint Austrian-South African firm that built the roads, ETC Joint Venture. The actual amount of money leaving the country is up for debate, but Sanral will say that it needed both the expertise and the deep pockets of Kapsch to get it all going in the first place. But while it is only a portion of that money that will leave South Africa, it makes for terrible PR to see headlines claiming the only people benefitting from all of this are foreign. And there’s no way around it for Sanral, which owes somewhere around R20 billion. That’s what the whole upgrade cost and there’ll be a cast-iron agreement that it must be paid back. Which also gives Sanral and the politicians very little room for movement on the whole issue of toll fees.
Despite all the explanations, Sanral has achieved that rare feat of being condemned by both Cosatu and Business Unity South Africa. The Automobile Association has had its go with its figures warning some businesses could go bust as a result of the system. Then there’s been laughter at the idea that people will actually pay their toll fees simply because they got a bill in the post. All in all, it’s come across as typically Vogon.
But the most important player in all of this is the Gauteng ANC. It labelled the proposed costs as “disastrous”. And in a possible flexing of the muscles of its chairman arts minister Paul Mashatile, it’s set up a task team to investigate. In the meantime Gauteng Premier (for now) Mokonyane has stepped into the public arena. She used her state of the province address on Monday to say, “We have observed with serious concern the announcement on the implementation of the tolling strategy which has been made in isolation from a comprehensive, viable public transport plan and with a lack of consultation, in particular with the Gauteng provincial government”. She went on to announce she’s meeting on Tuesday with transport minister Sbu Ndebele to discuss this.
The Gauteng ANC says, just in case things go pear-shape, “we didn’t give her a mandate”, but it’s backing her all the same. One could be forgiven for thinking politicians of a variety of stripes recognise an opportunity to get on the right side of public opinion when they see it.
Mokonyane also seized on another sure-fire winner during her address. She took aim at Joburg mayor Amos Masondo’s billing problems, by saying, “We share the concerns raised by the affected households on billing issues in the City of Johannesburg”. That’s a lot further than anyone else in any ANC-based power position has gone. The Gauteng ANC could only hold a meeting with all ANC mayors in Gauteng where this issue was just “on the agenda”. Mokonyane may be making a slight mistake here, though. She seems to be trying to become popular, to be getting the public on her side. In the ANC, that is not always going to work. Because so often long-term success counts on the alliances you make with other leaders. It’s about dealing with different constituencies within the party rather than directly with the people. That’s the price you pay for a one-party system.
This also means that when it comes to those toll roads everyone forgot about, this is going to be settled by measuring who is more powerful at Luthuli House, rather than through any other means, popular or not. Having said that, legally speaking this could hinge on the issue of consultation. Usually if an existing road is to be tolled, the views of the people using that road have to be taken into account. We can’t remember public hearings about these highways, despite the protestations from the transport ministry. Its officials are adamant there was a series of meetings, including presentations on the highway economic model with the Gauteng government. The fact they have times and dates would appear to indicate Mokonyane has stumbled in her claim the Gauteng government wasn’t consulted.
While Ndebele has repeatedly said he’s open to consultation, he was also quoted as saying people who didn’t like the toll roads “could use alternatives”. Of course that’s nonsense, and he’s probably regretting that comment. But he has already gazetted the proposed figures and that would make it slightly humiliating to have to climb down now.
Vogons were known to be incredibly stubborn and very strong. But they were no match for the more quick-witted. Ndebele may find on this one, while he could tough it out, it might be better in the longer run to find another way. In the long term, we could be all found hitchhiking on the road to Pretoria. DM
Grootes is an EWN reporter.
Photo: N1 at Midrand, by Axel Bührmann.
Some firing squads are all issued with blank cartridges with the exception of one person. This helps alleviate personal responsibility for the execution squad.