South Africa, Life, etc, Politics

The battle for the asphalt jungle: the players, the field, the timing

By Greg Nicolson 24 April 2012

This week we’re going to witness one of the most anticipated showdowns in the history of a democratic South Africa. In the red corner, electrified by public outrage, we have the opposition to Gauteng’s e-tolls. In the blue corner, backed by the ruling party, we have the champions of tolling, Sanral. Ladies and gentlemen, let’s get ready to rumble. By GREG NICOLSON.

The fight over e-tolls, due to begin on April 30, resembles a last-man-standing cage fight rather than your typical boxing match. But the fighters are prepared and ready to lay their reputations on the line in the much-anticipated battle. The stakes are high and the participants have their reasons for entering the fray.

Proponents of the tolls have been as confident as Muhamad Ali in the lead-up to the fight and have the jump on their opponents. The gantries are in place and the law is on their side, so far.

Treasury weighed in on Monday, announcing that an interdict application at the North Gauteng High Court trying to stop tolling from going ahead would harm the economy. “There would be serious negative implications for future financing of roads and investment in public transport, were Sanral to be interdicted from implementing the toll collection system,” it said a statement.

The government guaranteed some of the debt Sanral took for the Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project and wants to ensure it can access cheap credit. “The integrity and sustainability of government’s continued access to capital markets is a vital and essential determinant of SA’s capacity to finance the infrastructure required for economic growth, development and rising living standards,” continued the treasury.

Provincial and state government has been consistent: e-tolls are a done deal and there’s no turning back unless the courts say otherwise. The government is already chipping in R5.75-billion to make tolls cheaper.

Its tag team partner, Sanral, also has a consistent message – it has done all the necessary preparation for the tolls to be deemed legal and the process of consultation was transparent.

“After listening to the concerns raised by the public, we decided to exempt taxis and buses because that is how the poorest of the poor travel,” said Sanral chief executive Nazir Alli. He added that not paying tolls is a “white collar crime” and if e-tolling is scrapped as many as 1,200 jobs could go with it.

The opponents to e-tolls are as disparate and divided as the country itself. But the motley crew has been active and enjoys the support of public sentiment.

Cosatu has been one of the most vociferous critics, starting with its march against labour brokers and e-tolling, one of the biggest public demonstrations since 1994, which positioned it against its tripartite alliance partner the ANC.

The fight got dirty when it emerged that Cosatu’s investment arm, Kopano Ke Matla, holds shares in Raubex, a construction company that worked on the soon-to-be-tolled R21.

Undeterred, Cosatu’s flexing its muscles for the “mother of all protests”. Last week it filed a section 77 notice, which protects all workers who want to participate in a national stay-away on April 30. After a week including a total of 12 demonstrations, Cosatu hopes it will deliver the knockout punch.

Also gunning for Sanral is the Opposition to Urban Tolling Alliance, which is due in the North Gauteng High Court today after it lodged an application for an interdict. Comprising the SA Vehicle Renting and Leasing Association, the Quadpara Association of South Africa, the SA National Consumer Union and recently supported by the Road Freight Association, it’s been relentless in its public opposition.

Outa claims e-tolling forces South Africans to pay R102-billion for a R26-billion project, that it’s irrational and unreasonable and was imposed without consultation. It complains the routes are not new, there’s no alternative to the highways and there’s no effective and reliable public transport available.

Never shying from a fray, the Democratic Alliance is in the mix and on Monday the Gauteng ANC Youth League announced its opposition. Both Business Unity South Africa and the SA Chamber of Commerce have called for the launch to be delayed.

Madala Thepa mused on the extent of public opposition in the Sunday World. “No one wants e-tolls and that goes for deadbeat dads, paedophiles, snitches and ‘black diamonds’ whose middle-class status is hard to keep in place. The Joburg hippies too have come out of their foxholes to say this is not on.”

He continues, “This is the ruling party’s nostalgic attraction to apartheid – mimicking the past with all its stirring rendition of cruelty and greed.

What we are witnessing, ladies and gentlemen, is the carbon-based life form of apartheid government. At the moment they just don’t have the guts to beat us up or shoot us in our driveways.”

In this fight there’s much more at stake than the 30c per kilometre you’ll be charged if you’re registered and have an e-tag. There’s been a flood of opposition because this is a chance to force the will of the people on to SA’s rulers. For others, e-tolling is a symbol of what Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi labelled “economic apartheid”, another sign the ANC is ignoring the needs of the poor.

What’s on the line for the government is its ability to function smoothly. The Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project and its method of funding haven’t come as a surprise. A reversal would be an embarrassment that leaves doubt over all other projects and questions its ability to plan, raise money and implement goals. Scrapping e-tolls also leaves the question: where does the money come from now?

The clock is ticking until the moment you’ll be charged to use the highways, but no one’s backing down. The opposition represents disparate interests and they haven’t been able to unite, but there’ll be a week of protests on multiple fronts. Sanral and the government haven’t shown any indication they’ll budge and have time on their side.

It leaves us with one hell of a fight. Whether you’re for or against, the battle means much more to South Africa than e-tolls. Ladies and gentlemen, get ready to rumble. DM

Read more:

  • E-tolls: a dogfight on the cards on Daily Maverick.
  • Lessons from the Gauteng e-toll controversy on PoliticsWeb.
  • E-tolls, strange bedfellows and ideological confusions on MoneyWeb.

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