South Africa

Captain Alli rides back from the sunset

By Greg Nicolson 1 June 2012

The first instalment of one of the SA dramas of 2012 ended with a key character, Nazir Alli, bowing out as the public roared victorious against e-tolling. Now, as the debate returns, Alli’s been resurrected and will resume his role as head of the SA National Roads Agency. By GREG NICOLSON.

Alli never explained why he resigned as CEO of Sanral, but the events spoke for themselves. He served the roads agency faithfully from 1998. As public opposition mounted against the tolling of roads upgraded on the Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project, Alli was on the frontline, forever loyal to the plan. Long before the government legitimately engaged on the issue, Alli’s voice was the voice of e-tolls.

But on 28 April, days before tolling was to begin, the North Gauteng High Court granted the Opposition to Urban Tolling Alliance an urgent interdict to stop the system before it began. A full court review would determine whether it should proceed.

In a flash Alli resigned and his time at Sanral was gone, done, dead. “He has done the honourable thing by resigning,” said the DA’s Neil Campbell. “We feel that he was the personification of this project that we were so opposed to and we hope that this means the final end of the whole e-tolling saga,” said Cosatu spokesman Patrick Craven.

Some thought his resignation was like a samurai committing seppuku. Others thought it more like a captain jumping ship. But later it emerged that Alli had tried once before to resign and might have been frustrated by the political maze that made his work difficult. Whatever it was, there was no suggestion he’d return. Alli sought solace overseas.

But the ANC, with all its powers and seemingly as part of the comeback strategy, has chosen to resurrect his career. Speaking in Cape Town, transport minister S’bu Ndebele and deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe said Alli was going nowhere and he wouldn’t be used as a “scapegoat”.

“We have discussed (it) with him and the issue does not relate to the person. It relates to the decision we took over years from 2007 onwards, and we need to continue, particularly in this particular period. We need all the experience we have from the department of transport, from government and from Sanral, therefore we want all hands on deck,” said Ndebele.

“The minister did explain that we received a letter of resignation and that was informed by the understanding that it was contributing toward a solution. But indeed the problem did not revolve round him nor him revolving around the problem, so there was an understanding that he stays put,” added Motlanthe, chair of the inter-ministerial committee handling the Sanral crisis.

“There is no search for a CEO,” he added, suggesting the whole thing was a gantry-sized misunderstanding. But Sanral’s board had received and accepted Alli’s resignation and thanked him on his way out. It appointed engineering executive Koos Smit as acting CEO after Alli’s departure on 3 June and it committed itself to “undertaking a thorough and legitimate process of finding a suitable candidate to steer Sanral forward.”

Hinting that retaining Alli was a government decision, Motlanthe said the board still had to formally deal with the non-resignation.

So why would the government want to resurrect a dead antihero? Under extreme financial pressure, Sanral is fighting for survival. Its books feature a R20-billion debt from the project. Failure to service the loan will have dire effects on the country.

“Government has to look at other ways of servicing that debt, which means taking away money from other allocations… hence the consideration of introducing this special bill to enable government to continue keeping Sanral in a healthy state of servicing the debt,” said Motlanthe. The proposed appropriations bill is one option to give the road agency a cash injection.

But it won’t bring the sort of cash e-tolls offer. The government clearly wants the system to go ahead. It’s challenging the High Court interdict in the Constitutional Court and appears to be distancing itself from the agreement the ANC made with Cosatu, which gave the federation of unions the sense that e-tolls were dead and buried.

So after Alli’s dramatic exit and a major blow to Sanral, he’s back and so are e-tolls. His return is the strongest indication of the government’s commitment yet. Rather than inject new blood, they want “all hands on deck” guided by the old captain.

The government is hunkering down on the issue and wants to present a united front to meet the oncoming torrent of outrage. As they’re about to release the list of subcontractors involved in the project, they’ll need Alli. Questions will be asked and it’s better, no doubt, to have the captain on board to meet them. DM

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Photo: Nazir Alli (Mail & Guardian)


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