Sanral boss Nazir Alli doesn’t give many interviews. His voice is usually absent in the fiery debates that rage over e-tolling. But this has been a colossal week in the history of the multi-billion rand project and Alli couldn’t escape a pesky journalist who happened to be on the same flight out of Bloemfontein. ALEX ELISEEV spoke to the man who believes you will be paying your e-toll bills.
The events of this week make it inescapably probable that e-tolling will be launched within weeks. We say “probable” because anything can happen in this strange land, but the truth is that it’s been a fantastic week for Sanral and a pretty lousy one for everyone in the opposite corner.
Wayne Duvenage of the Opposition to Urban Tolling Alliance (Outa) described the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) hearing on Wednesday as a “tough day at the office”. The DA’s Mmusi Maimane, who attended the hearing, said if he had to bet his last R5 coin on the outcome, he’d rather bet on the elections next year. (The DA has been one of Outa’s big sponsors and is using e-tolling as an election issue.) Cosatu has thrown out some strong comments saying, “the fight is only beginning”, but it’s probably got bigger problems to worry about right now.
Outa approached the SCA after suffering a defeat at the North Gauteng High Court. It wants the appeals court to stop the entire project and force Sanral and the Department of Transport to go back to the drawing board.
But from the first sentence uttered by the alliance’s advocate, Mike Maritz, which was interrupted by justice Fritz Brand, it was clear the hearing would be an uphill battle. The court was concerned about the consequences of dismantling the system this late in the game and whether Sanral had any choice in what was ultimately a cabinet decision. Maritz was forced to circle around the same questions for much of the day, but did argue that the process of declaring the tolls was flawed and riddled with “unlawful decisions”. He accused Sanral of misleading the public, which Sanral promptly took offense to.
When it was Sanral’s turn, the SCA raised concerns about the level of public participation that had been carried out. But the terms “consequences”, “in the real world” and “water under the bridge” kept cropping up. The court hinted that a crippling costs order that Outa was slapped with at the lower court (forcing it to pay the legal fees of its opponents, including silks like David Unterhalter and Jeremy Gauntlett) could well be overturned. But even Duvenage, speaking outside court, would only say “there’s a chance” when asked about whether Outa could walk away victorious. Judgment has been reserved.
On the same afternoon, the presidency announced that Jacob Zuma has signed into law a bill that frees up Sanral to launch e-tolling. It’s all awfully technical, but Sanral has always claimed that the bill – which deals with the collection of tolls – was the last hurdle standing in its way. The presidency later clarified that Zuma hadn’t actually signed the bill on the day of the court case (which would have been far too obvious) but four days earlier, before jetting off to the US. Even so, after months of speculation and uncertainty, the timing is most curious.
All things being equal, Sanral can now flick the switch and power up its gantries in two weeks, allowing for some final administrative issues to be resolved.
The question, of course, is: will it? And will the system cope?
Outa has always maintained Sanral is not ready to launch. This week, it claimed Sanral would live to regret e-tolling because it will never win the hearts and minds of the people and will face mutiny from motorists. The argument goes that the number of defaulters will be so great – and the cost of chasing after them so high – that the system will crash.
But Nazir Alli disagrees.
“People are assuming that we are a lawless society in Gauteng … now that’s a wrong assumption to make. I think once people actually start to see and enjoy the actual benefits of the thing and recognise that it is a contribution that they are making to the upkeep of the infrastructure and paying for the service they are getting, people will pay. So I am not as pessimistic as most of the people around to say there will be widespread lawlessness. We are a law abiding society in South Africa.”
Asked to estimate the percentage of drivers who will pay their tariffs, Alli says: “Once the system goes live we’ll find out”. He then reminds us that on one existing route Sanral enjoys a 100% level of compliance.
Alli won’t comment on the SCA court case or on when e-tolling will actually start. He says that’s in the hands of Transport Minister Dipou Peters. But he’s adamant the roads agency is ready to launch: “Technically we’ve been ready for two years. The system is already working on the Bokwena highway. 60,000 people are already using it.”
Alli doesn’t deny there may be initial glitches, but he says they’ll “be able to manage”.
“We must stop encouraging lawlessness in our country,” Alli says to those calling for civil disobedience. “We must show respect for the rule of law. We can’t be selective in terms of which laws of our country we’d like to respect and which we don’t like to respect. That is what leads to a breakdown of society.”
Alli also denies that e-tolling is being launched in the shadow of countless crucial questions hanging over it, such as where the profits are going?
“Our doors are always open,” he claims, adding that all tender documents have been handed over to the opposition and posted online.
Many may argue that Alli is living in a utopian universe and not in the “the real world” which the SCA justices like to remind us about. But what is important is that Sanral must now make its next move and launch e-tolling. There are simply no more excuses. Alli is on record saying that they can and that they will. Only once this happens, will we be able to see who was right all along? DM
Alex Eliseev is an EWN reporter. Follow him on @alexeliseev
Photo: Nazir Alli, chief executive officer of the SA National Road Agency, updates the National Press Club in Pretoria on the Gauteng freeway improvement project, Thursday, 29 October 2009. Picture: Werner Beukes/SAPA
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