It cannot be easy to be Cosatu president S’dumo Dlamini and acting general secretary Bheki Ntshalintshali right now. They have been trying really hard to convince everyone that all is well in Cosatu since the indefatigable Zwelinzima Vavi was put on special leave and that under their watch, relations with their allies in the ANC and SACP have improved. Despite a boycott from Vavi’s supporters at an alliance summit a few weeks ago, they claimed that it was a highly successful meeting where all Cosatu’s grievances were put on the table and given a fair hearing.
At a media briefing at the close of the summit, Ntshalintshali said Cosatu was happy with the outcome as all alliance partners were able to listen to one another’s concerns, and that improved relations in the alliance meant that they could now work through issues of contention.
Just a few days later, that all sounds like a load of hooey. Clearly Cosatu’s objections to e-tolling was not taken seriously enough or President Jacob Zuma would not have signed the legislation permitting the South African National Roads Agency Limited (Sanral) to implement of the user-pay system on Gauteng freeways.
Daily Maverick understands that Cosatu delegates raised the e-tolls issue both in the commissions and in the plenary session of the alliance summit but no indication was given that it was close to becoming law. The e-tolls issue was not mentioned in the summit declaration.
Dlamini and Ntshalintshali’s faction has been careful, in the absence of Vavi, not to be seen to be backing down on issues that Cosatu has taken firm positions on. They have been sensitive to criticism that they would easily capitulate to the ANC, and have therefore made sure that they remain resolute on issues such as Cosatu’s opposition to the National Development Plan, labour broking and e-tolling.
Following last week’s central executive committee meeting, Cosatu announced that it would be holding a “national day of action” on e-tolls. The meeting also agreed to establish a commission to take forward Cosatu’s socio-economic campaigns including the one against e-tolls. Clearly Cosatu did not anticipate that e-tolling would be legalised within a week and they now have to scramble to decide what to do about it.
While Cosatu is usually quick off the mark to react to news developments, no statement was issued by the federation reacting to the presidency pulling the carpet from under its feet. Cosatu spokesman Patrick Craven was however responding to media queries on Thursday, pledging to continue the protest action against e-tolling.
It is not only Cosatu that has been left disorientated by the presidency’s announcement on the e-tolls. An ANC provincial executive committee (PEC) member in Gauteng said they were also not given any advance warning that the legislation would be signed into law this week. The ANC in the province has also been opposed to e-tolling but has been forced to tone down their resistance and talk up the concessions made by government, especially to cushion the poor.
However, with Gauteng set to be one of the major election battlegrounds in the 2014 elections, there have been concerns among ANC provincial leaders about their ability to retain control of the province next year as opposition parties make serious inroads into the ANC’s former strongholds. The ANC won 64% of the vote in Gauteng in the 2009 election but there are now concerns that disenchantment among the province’s large black middle class population over corruption and government failures could translate into a dramatic drop in support for the ANC next year.
A research document drawn up by the Gauteng ANC at the beginning of the year stated: “The days of winning Gauteng automatically are drawing to a close. Even a dip in our support will energise the opposition massively.”
The document goes on to say: “There is a clear and present danger that we have lost or are losing the black middle class.”
The introduction of e-tolling on Gauteng freeways would make the ANC’s election campaign in the province even more difficult. A widespread defiance campaign against e-tolling can easily morph into pro-Democratic Alliance campaign, as the party is helping to finance the Opposition to Urban Tolling Alliance’s (Outa) legal challenge of the system.
The DA’s national spokesman Mmusi Maimane, who is also the party’s premier candidate for Gauteng, was quick to capitalise on the presidency’s announcement that the e-tolling Bill was now law.
“The DA urges the public not to despair now that the president has chosen to ignore the immense opposition to tolling. We will take our opposition to tolls to the streets, and we will explore every possible angle to fight it here in Gauteng, the courts and in Parliament,” Maimane said.
The presidency’s sudden announcement was like a lottery bonanza for Maimane while he is on the campaign trail in Gauteng.
“The public must know that the surest way to get rid of e-tolls for good is through the ballot box. If I am elected Premier of Gauteng next year, I will do everything in my power to stop e-tolling in its tracks,” Maimane said.
In the meantime, the ANC in the province has been left flat-footed. “We were taken aback that the announcement was made on the same day the matter was in court (Outa’s challenge in the Supreme Court of Appeal against e-tolling). But do not expect us to say publicly that we say no to e-tolls. In any event, once it is law there is little we can do,” a Gauteng PEC member said.
He said e-tolling was difficult to implement so they might still be indefinite delays to the introduction of the system. “Once it is introduced, it will reduce our ability to win decisively,” he said.
So what, then, was the thinking behind the president signing the legislation now, considering how controversial the issue is, the fierceness of the opposition to it and the fact that protests against e-tolling would be counter-productive to the ANC? (We are assuming, of course, that serious thought that went into the decision to sign the Bill and not just a clearing of the in-tray before Zuma jetted off to New York to attend the UN General Assembly)
It could be that the president decided that bailing out Sanral, which has been downgraded by ratings agency Moodys and has mounting debt to repay, took precedence over the election campaign. It is not often that the interests of the ANC are secondary but Zuma might have been advised that stalling e-tolling further would damage Sanral and the economy irreparably.
Perhaps Zuma felt that there was still sufficient time before the elections and that Gauteng motorists would get over their anger by then – the veritable storm in a teacup that would blow over in time. Perhaps the president, and whoever he conferred with on the matter, decided that it would be the middle class in Gauteng that would be most affected by e-tolling a constituency that was a write-off for the ANC anyway. Or perhaps Zuma is of the view that traditional loyalty to the ANC would trump all else, including intense opposition to having to fork out more money to pay to the state and the overseas contractors. It could also be that the president does not fully appreciate how big this issue is and feels it is just being trumped up by a few people in Cosatu, civil society and the media.
The Freedom Front Plus has another theory; it believes there is political game behind the e-tolling announcement. FFPlus parliamentary spokesman Anton Alberts said they believed Zuma would “announce drastic cuts in the toll fees shortly before the election or to put a moratorium in place until after the election in order to mislead the public to vote for the ANC”. However this assumes that the electorate is extremely gullible and open to manipulation. Besides, if there were to be further cuts in toll fees or a moratorium, surely that would have been announced now rather than working everyone into a frenzy and having to neutralise the situation later.
It is not as if e-tolling is the initiative of the Zuma administration. They have been saddled with it and have been battling for years to try and find a way to make it work. All interventions, including that by Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe, failed to find a middle ground that would defuse the controversy. So it was a matter of time before Zuma had to sign the Bill. The question is why did he do so now?
The ANC nationally and in Gauteng will have to develop a strategy to contend with protest action against e-tolling to make sure that it does not destabilise its own election campaign.
Cosatu will have to stand by its undertaking to lead the defiance campaign alongside with Outa, joined by other civil society organisations, religious bodies and opposition parties. This is likely to be the biggest co-ordinated protest action against the ANC government since 1994, with active participation from one of its alliance partners.
Whether this will translate into a negative vote against the ANC, or a positive vote for the DA and whichever other parties climb in on the action, remains to be seen. Zuma’s decision to put pen to paper might come back to haunt him and the ANC. Or it might turn out to be just another controversy that would fade into obscurity with time… as will many more scandals to come. DM
Photo: President Jacob Zuma’s face features on a truck at the ANC’s Mangaung conference. Mangaung, Free State, South Africa, 19 December 2012. (Greg Nicolson/NewsFire)
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