If you had to pose the question: “What makes us South African?” almost everyone across all stripes and classes would have answered, “hating e-tolls”. It was the one issue that united us: from grumbling CEOs wondering whether to buy a thousand e-tags because some auditor somewhere refused to place “moral virtue” under the “assets” column, to Cosatu and NUMSA, who provided most of the heavy public lifting when the anti-tolling protests were held. Now, Gauteng Premier David Makhura has answered the call of millions and said he’s instituting a “panel to investigate the impact of e-tolling on the province”. By STEPHEN GROOTES.
David Makhura is part of a newer, younger breed within ANC leadership circles. He’s been running the Gauteng ANC for over a decade and is much closer to people in the province than some of those who have been in provincial government during this period.
Makhura is viewed as honest and much more open than some. In the hours before his first State of the Province Address, he was happy to break with tradition and give interviews about what to expect in his speech. And when asked about whether he would discuss e-tolls, he flagged that he would, thus raising expectations. Makhura, and the people around him, have always understood the media, and particularly the middle class media, better than any other group in the ANC.
But when he actually gave his address in Thokoza on Friday, the extent of his proposal still came as a shock. For the record, it is worth quoting exactly what he said:
“It is against this background that we shall also set up a panel to review the impact of e-tolls and invite new proposals on how we can find a lasting solution to this matter, working with the national government, municipalities and all sectors of society.
“While we shall not promise easy solutions and claim easy victories, we must make it clear that we cannot close our eyes to the cries of sectors of our population who are severely affected by the cost of traveling across the province.
“We must all move from the premise that we need good roads in our province to support economic development. How we finance such infrastructure must be deliberated upon and agreed.
“I urge those who are having vehicles to continue to pay while we are finding a lasting solution.”
First, let’s just ask: is he for real? Is this really the end for e-tolls? While it is in the interests of both the Opposition to Urban Tolling Alliance’s Wayne Duvenage and Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi to say that it is, is it really?
The answer has to be yes. Firstly, if Makhura were to make this announcement without knowing that he will be able to make it happen, he would be forever weakened if it didn’t come to pass. This would hobble him right out of the starting blocks, within his first big speech as Premier he would have made an unfulfilled promise and he would be reminded of it forever. Secondly, just by making this comment he is ensuring that the Sanral centres dotted around our highways are unlikely to see much business ever again.
No one is likely to ever buy an e-tag again. And those who do have them are now unlikely to pay their bills. All the waverers are now firmly in the “not paying” column. They all know that with doubt in the minds of the rulers, of government, they have the best excuse in the world. It would be perfectly reasonable, they would tell the imaginary judge in their minds if they were ever prosecuted for non-payment, for them to have waited the outcome of the process announced by the Premier. It would be completely unreasonable to be prosecuted for not paying for something that government hasn’t made a final decision on yet.
And we all know that if you pay money over to a government agency and the entire policy is reversed and it turns out you shouldn’t have, you will never get it back (as anyone who has ever been promised that the refund is “in the mail” by the City of Joburg call centre will tell you. Through gritted teeth.).
Makhura of course is well aware that he could be accused of thus fatally sabotaging the entire project with this speech. And considering how Luthuli House is still seemingly unhappy with the Gauteng ANC over the way it backed Kgalema Motlanthe at Mangaung, in some way it could even be claimed that he should be punished for this.
Which again indicates that Makhura wouldn’t do this unless he and Luthuli House were on the same page. If they weren’t, he would be squeezed between the anger of the national ANC on the one side, and the frustration of his Gauteng constituency that he had failed on his promise on the other. And he’s way too good a politician to get himself into such a precarious position.
In short, this is a great example of why South Africa is still a democracy. What we had here was a failure to consult. The original sin of that, back in 2007 and 2008, has got us to where we are now. In 2008, during the cabinet “cluster briefings”, then Transport Director-General Mpumi Mpofu (yes, she is married to that Mpofu) discussed in detail how government was going to solve the “Allandale” problem, the huge congestion there was at the time around the Allandale off-ramp off the N1 in Gauteng. No mention at the time of tolling. And if it was mentioned, it must have been whispered so quietly that this journalist didn’t hear it.
Luthuli House is clearly as worried as the Gauteng ANC is about losing the province in 2019. But before then, the three big metros, Joburg, Tshwane and Ekhuruleni in 2016. All of those metros are affected by e-tolls. It’s clear that the period of campaigning in the run-up to the elections, and then coming so close to losing the province (the ANC’s final tally was 53.59%) has led to some serious introspection. It must have been no fun for the ANC to be the target of the first ever multi-class mass campaign in the country.
And of course, unlike so many other issues, being a simple issue of governance, of choice-making in political terms, there was nothing about our past, or our identities that could be used to defend it. In other words, everyone was against e-tolls. The only people in favour were those businesses who felt the better roads were worth the extra costs, and had the resources to pay for them, those whom the cost-benefit analysis favoured.
This turn-around may also be proof that Cosatu still has teeth. Their opposition legitimised the opposition of everyone else, whether communist or capitalist. Which meant it was that much harder to defend.
Makhura himself has always been against e-tolls. The whole of the Gauteng ANC has appeared to be. The one person who wouldn’t criticise them was Nomvula Mokonyane, when she was appointed Premier by the ANC’s National Executive Committee, against the wishes of the Gauteng ANC. Before the gantries went live Makhura said on tape, several times that he “would fight for a better deal for the people of Gauteng” on the issue; politicspeak for “we don’t want them”. So, it wasn’t just the people of Gauteng who weren’t consulted, it was clearly the ANC in the province as well. All of this means that Makhura can also claim that he is being consistent in his beliefs.
Incidentally, it is still slightly odd that Makhura himself was able to make this announcement. While he certainly didn’t say explicitly “e-tolls are over”, he has more than signaled the beginning of the end. Considering the official final decision to toll was taken by Cabinet (and the laws around it decided upon by Parliament, and then signed by President Jacob Zuma) if there had been a change of heart, you would have thought Zuma himself, or the Transport Minister, would want to take the credit for it. Now Makhura is going to be able to use this as political capital, the man who ended e-tolls. As a result, that may strengthen the hand of the Gauteng ANC in a way.
It is also important to remember that no court had actually said anything around the entire system was illegal. While several of the main aspects of it may not have been legally tested, the system at the moment is, uhm, legal. But politics was against it, and so it was killed. Yet another example of how in 21st Century South Africa, politics so often trumps the courts.
Having said all of this, what now? It’s difficult to predict. There will be a process, and like all the other processes we have, it will take a while. But the call for public submissions means that people, voters, will be heard. That their anger and frustration will be listened to. And people like Outa and Cosatu have all sorts of ideas to share around how the roads should be paid for. Fixing this, finding the money, won’t be easy. But at least, we will all now, finally, seven years too late, be listened to. DM
Photo: Newly elected Gauteng premier David Makhura announces his executive council in Johannesburg on Friday, 23 May 2014. Picture: Werner Beukes/SAPA
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