South Africa, Politics

Nazir Alli: E-tolling scandal’s first victim

By Alex Eliseev 9 May 2012

Controversial SA National Roads Agency boss, Nazir Alli, has pressed the “eject” button from a fighter jet that’s been losing some serious altitude over the past few weeks. His departure has been sudden and mysterious – and welcomed by many – but ALEX ELISEEV looks at the bigger picture and the turbulence that could follow.

Nazir Alli’s resignation was nothing short of a magical vanishing act. On Monday, his defiant words graced the letters page of a newspaper, accusing journalist of peddling speculation and assuring the nation the entire e-tolling deal is above board.

The next morning, with a puff of smoke and a short press release from the South African National Road Agency Limited’s board of directors, Alli was gone.

No explanation was given for his exit. No interviews granted to clarify the departure. But every assurance was given that Sanral would continue along its road map, as it has for the past 14 years.

The bombshell announcement came a week after a Pretoria court granted an urgent interdict against e-tolling, which is being managed by the association. The court battle and the subsequent victory for the Opposition to Urban Tolling Alliance has been described as a possible turning point for the country’s civil society. Never before has there been such a tax revolt, nor such unity in opposing a single project. Never has there been such anger, followed by such hope.

In the process, Alli became public enemy almost-number-one, a position he had to fight many characters to attain. He grew to represent an arrogant Goliath, who failed to listen to the people or to communicate properly. Whether it was right or wrong, he became the face of e-tolling.

On Monday, Sanral’s board met quietly and accepted his resignation. In the press release that followed it wished him well, thanked him for his service and for his offer to help with the handover by staying on until early June.

“The immediate focus and priority of the board is to ensure that Sanral continues to perform its essential role in operating and maintaining more than 16,000km of national roads across South Africa,” the statement read. “Further announcements will be made in due course.”

When journalists called for clarity, they were referred to the statement. When they asked for interviews, they were referred to the statement. In fact, no matter what they asked, they were referred to the source of all wisdom, The Statement. 

Throughout the court case, Sanral was accused of hiding crucial information from the public and of not being transparent enough. The same allegations began to fly around Alli’s decision to step out the back door.

Not surprisingly, the speculation began instantly. Outa said that even if it can’t know for sure, it believes the court case was a catalyst in the latest development. Its head, Wayne Duvenage, was diplomatic and wished Alli well, saying the real battle continues (the upcoming court review) and that the mess is far bigger than one man.

Some suggested Alli was falling on his sword, or that the pressure had simply become too great. But it seems there is – as always – more to the story. It appears Alli had tried to resign before, but was somehow persuaded to stay. Those sympathetic to him say he clashed with the board and had grown increasingly frustrated.

With Sanral being owned by government, the dynamics of leading the organization must have been incredibly complex, with various forces at play and too many political masters pulling in different directions.

What must have made the situation even more unbearable was the bizarre, last-minute agreement by Cosatu and the ANC to delay the launch of e-tolling for the fifth time, right in the middle of the interdict court hearing.

It was a decision that embarrassed the treasury and, as Michael Spicer of Business Leadership SA suggests, left Alli out to dry. That decision blurred the lines of who was in charge and confused the matter all the more.

Sanral’s credit rating downgrade and financial woes (the treasury yesterday told Parliament that the organization could limp along for six months, but not much longer) couldn’t have helped.

Speaking to Talk Radio 702’s Bruce Whitfield, Spicer said he felt sympathy for Alli.

He said it would be unfair to lay all the blame at Alli’s door because the real problem was a “chaotic political and policy direction” with too many ministers in charge, too much leeway for corruption in the tender process and a failure to understand the real implications.

“He did a good job,” Spicer said. “In a technical sense he’s run a tight ship. But this was a bridge too far… there were implications for the national economy, for Gauteng, and the direction was just hopeless.”

Spicer concluded by saying: “You can’t run a country in this way”.

Earlier this week, auditor-general Terence Nombembe spoke about the very same issues – leadership, accountability and competence – describing the state of affairs as “dire”.

So, did Alli buckle under the pressure of the e-tolling war or was he a victim of political chaos, which made his job impossible?

It’s also emerged that his resignation letter did not outline his reasons for leaving, fuelling further speculation of a hostile departure.

From its side, the DA wants answers to these very questions, saying Alli should not be allowed to leave with all his secrets. It plans to ask a parliamentary committee on transport to summon Alli and some of the board members to explain what happened.

“Resignations should not and cannot be allowed to become a way of escaping accountability,” shadow transport minister Ian Ollis said. “Is Alli the fall guy for the political bosses who don’t want to take responsibility?”

Other reaction was mixed, with some calling Alli an aggressive dictator and others reminiscing about his achievements. 

The ANC said even though it was surprised by the resignation, it trusted Sanral’s board and is not planning to question its decision. It says talks continue to try to find a solution to the funding riddle.

The transport department said: “Under Alli’s leadership, South Africa developed a road network that can compete with the best in the world”.

It thanked him for his “sterling work” and, without going into more detail, said he would continue to work with Sanral on major projects.

The Justice Project SA said the way the resignation was communicated shows that the association has no plans to change its ways, and criticised Alli’s “aggressive and dictatorial style”.

In the end, with all sides in SA’s political spectrum letting us know exactly what they think, the truth about Alli’s resignation remains elusive. But it does, once again, force us to look beyond the lynching of a single man and examine an entire system, to think about the country’s leadership and ask whether it’s experiencing a crisis.

Hopefully the court review, which is expected to start soon, will help us see past all the magic tricks and hold those responsible to account. DM


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