Ndebele announces rethink on toll roads

By Theresa Mallinson 24 October 2011

People from different walks of life and political allegiances may have different reasons for campaigning against toll roads – in Gauteng and elsewhere – but one thing they're agreed on is that they are a bad idea. Public pressure has been brought to bear from all quarters and now it looks as if the government is finally listening. By THERESA MALLINSON.

Almost nobody has been in favour of the soon-to-be implemented toll roads in Gauteng. Not Cosatu, not the SACP, not the ANC in the province, not the more than 11,000 people who have joined the TollFreeGP campaign launched by the DA. And that’s before we even start to consider the proposed toll roads in Cape Town, and the fact that the DA is taking the South African National Roads Agency Limited to the Cape Town High Court to prevent tolling of the N1 and N2 near the mother city.

It seems the amount of fuss kicked up by this diverse array of political parties and interest groups, has made the government sit up and listen – to a point. On Sunday transport minister S’bu Ndebele announced that he’d instructed Sanral to “halt all road projects processes related to the tolling of national roads”.

“The Minister is of the view that consultative processes should be allowed to take place to offer concerned parties an opportunity to share their views on the toll-road programme. While he believes that the country requires good road infrastructure to meet its economic growth targets, the Minister says this shouldn’t put a huge financial burden on the shoulders of consumers,” the statement read, going on to say that consultative process already in place – most notably the task team that has been set up to look into the toll roads, as well as the hearings in the Gauteng provincial legislature – “should be allowed to reach their logical conclusions”.

But at this late stage in proceedings – with the Gauteng tolling system due to be implemented in February – it is only the future projects in Cape Town and the Eastern Cape that would be able to be completely relooked. Ndebele’s spokesman, Tiyani Rikhotso told iMaverick: “The thing with Gauteng is the infrastructure is up already. The conversation that needs to happen in Gauteng is how are we going to service the debt that government has incurred in putting up the infrastructure? Are we looking at a model where every tax player will be required to help Gauteng – even if they don’t use the roads; or are we looking at a situation where only users will be required to pay?”

At present, the government has chosen to finance the roads through tolls, with fees set at 24c/km for motorbikes; 40c/km for light motor vehicles; R1/km for medium vehicles; and R2/km for “longer vehicles”. Public transport – buses and minibus taxis – would be exempt from the toll fee, and discounts would apply to motorists who bought an e-tag, but Ndebele’s latest announcement indicates that this may be reconsidered. “There are a number of objections and views and inputs that people have put forward,” Rikhotso said. “We want to ensure that all of those views are taken in; at the end of the day we need to get the buy-in of the public.”

R20 billion has been spent so far on upgrading road infrastructure as part of the Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project, and this will need to be paid back, one way or another. But there’s also the question of how much the toll-collection system itself will cost, which could be as much as R14 billion. DA Gauteng caucus leader Jack Bloom told iMaverick: “The money that’s been spent on infrastructure isn’t as large a problem as the toll-collection system, and I think we’re locked into that contract.”

The DA has not yet got its hands on the toll-collection contract, although it has submitted a Promotion of Access to Information Act application, and is awaiting Sanral’s response. “I’m not sure how much room for manoeuvre they have on the Gauteng tolls,” said Bloom. “The battle in Gauteng in the toll-collection contract; that’s my view. We need to see what it’s really costing us, and can we get out of it?”

However, Bloom did classify Ndebele’s announcement as “a major rethink. It’s a victory for Cape Town; a victory for TollFreeGP as well,” he said. “The ANC suddenly realised that they’re in big trouble on this issue. I think TollFreeGP was a catalyst. It really put the on screws in Gauteng. Every single alliance party of the ANC is critical of it; the ANC in Gauteng is against it. It’s a bizarre situation.”

The Gauteng provincial legislature will hold hearings into the toll roads on 11 November. Then there’s also the task team that’s been set up to look at the issue, comprising Ndebele, finance minister Pravin Gordhan and some other people whose names have not been revealed to the public. “Those are the two key names,” said Rikhotso, without disclosing any others. He said that the task team would look not only at resolving the current issues, but also how to finance toll roads going forward.

It has not yet been announced when the task team is due to present its findings. “I know for a fact that the work is currently going on; they are currently meeting with all the relevant parties,” said Rikhotso. “I don’t have any specific time frames as to when we can expect the first report.” But with the putative implementation of the Gauteng tolls set for February, there’s no time to lose.

Regarding future projects, including the proposed Cape Town toll roads, deputy transport minister Jeremy Cronin announced last month already that these would be put on hold. Not that Sanral paid much attention to his words, as it indicated it would be going ahead with its plans for tolls around Cape Town. Ndebele’s latest announcement has cleared up this confusion – for now – by putting Sanral in its place.

Given these larger considerations outside of Gauteng, it would make sense if the task team presents its recommendations to the public before the DA’s Cape Town court date with Sanral on 6 December. Whatever method of financing is proposed for paying off road infrastructure in Gauteng – tolling, general tax, or an increased fuel levy – will set a precedent for the rest of the country. DM

Read more:

  • Blade Nzimande calls DA anti-toll campaign a tea party while he too hates the tolls, on Daily Maverick
  • Minister will talk about toll roads, on TimesLive

Photo: Axel Buhrman.


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