Opinionista Denis Beckett 12 February 2015

Sanral: An unlikely defence, from an unlikely defender

I’m a liar, tsk. Having sworn I’m writing on nothing but Seriously Sound Politics, I’ve hardly started and I break my word. I’m about to tell you some things you don’t know about Sanral. For you that probably looks like a better deal. For me, it stills a nagging conscience.

To know the truth about a myth that is causing damage, and not to disclose it, is weasel.

Even if you hate doing it. I rate Wayne and John at OUTA among the world’s good guys, and it’s odious to have to rub in where they’re wrong. And I’m disaffected with Sanrallers who took me on to write the truth as I saw it about them and then ran for cover when their boss decided I was seeing the wrong truths.

But a myth burbles on like the Bad Fairy’s spell. It has ruined the hope of having a second Pretoria-Joburg freeway before the Ben Schoeman returns to gridlock, and worse looms.

Recall the Y2K fear of 1999; planes would fall out of the sky, cyberworld crumpling unto dust and chaos reigning. It’s absurd now, a bubble, so absurd that everyone who insisted “this is big, this is important” swears that they laughed it off from the start. In 5 or 10 years, maybe 2, the Great E-toll Hate will be a bigger bubble.

You doubt this now, I daresay. So maybe you’d put me right then on a small query. The AA rate for me to drive my middle-sized car is R4.70 per kilometre. To that, the dreaded, abhorred, feared e-toll adds 30 cents per tolled kilometre. Can you explain why I’m supposed to find that frightening?

My car sees e-tolled roads for less than a quarter of its work. The-toll might add 1% to the cost of my driving. It sure doesn’t add 2%. It is unnoticeable next to the monthly variation of fuel price. I rejoice in my e-tag’s beep at a gantry, telling me of another minuscule sum, R1.84 or R2.17, that I have contributed to the cause of excellent roads.

Some people say, no, they pay the maximum, R450 a month. I say fine, whatever you pay is a tiny proportion of the total amount that your driving is costing you. Some say it’s hard upon the have-nots. I cite W, a freelance handyman.

W, taking Cosatu’s lead, was adamant he’d never befoul his proud bakkie on the toxic roads of this Satanic plot called e-toll.

When I saw the light and bought my e-tag he was scandalised; he took pains not to park too close. Until the day my phone rings and W asks where he gets an e-tag. I’m awestruck at his conversion. He says “I’ve got a job in Orange Farm. Doing it by backroads I’m driving all day and filling my tank every evening.”

There you have it in a nutshell: saving on your toll fee is too costly for people without money to spare. In bubbles, madness happens.

Here’s a headline from The Star in 2013: “E-tolls 10 Times More than Fuel Levy”. That one ran and ran, causing cardiac arrest at multiple googlable retellings. Unfortunately, it comes from a calculation out of Alice in Wonderland by Monty Python in a brandy stupor, based on no-one ever driving anywhere except on toll roads.

Then there was the national uproar in 2011 when we learned that Sanral was charging us twice as much as first world norms for its roads and three times as much as developing countries. That is still a count in the anti-Sanral charge-sheet – “blatant rip-off” and “flagrant theft” are two unhesitant judgements I’ve heard in this short year – but it’s a bad count.

After vainly seeking a Sanral rebuttal of this allegation I checked its Exhibit Number One, a 125 km World Bank highway in Senegal, built at a price so low as to make Sanral look like the most shameless profiteer since Al Capone.

Not so fast. This highway is actually 28 km long; every price was understated by a factor of some 500%.

Discovering that, I nearly quit, on grounds that nothing real could come from a study containing that big an error. But… could it be a freak glitch, was I being prejudiced? I ploughed on. The very next figure contained a R2 billion error, and there I gave up, without apology (though my disgust was mitigated by the author’s straightness when I told him).

Many myths went into the anti-tolling tsunami. Along with plain rubbish – Sanral is owned by a Cayman Islands company with shareholders named Zuma and Alli – was much that may be honest mistake. An engineering contract called “admeasure” recognises that a contractor can’t in advance know things like how much granite he must blast through and how much soil he can shovel aside. The contract can be thousands of pages long and have no final figure that lets the media say “it’s a this-big contract”. Which creates suspicion in Laymanland, and a search for the “hidden” size. The big numbers in the contract are worst-case numbers, the compromise between the contractor’s wish for protection against every disaster and the client’s wish for an outside edge to his risk. These numbers are always larger than, and can be multiples of, what is expected to change hands.

I think you smell a misperception factory in there, and, yep, a calculation from that factory gripped public imagination, feeding both the fictitious notion that the gantry contract was crooked and the bizarre notion that it’s unpatriotic to remit local proceeds to a foreign company. (Where did that come from, if not bubble-madness? Is it treason to drink a Coke? To buy a bestseller, buy a car, buy a phone?)

Oddest of all, while anti-toll fervour said “oppose these tolls, they are too expensive”, anti-toll obstruction made tolls expensive. Artificial queries turned electronic transactions that should cost cents or fractions of cents into staff time costing salaries.

As to everybody’s instant solution, the fuel levy, that’s saying “up the tax of the 10 million motorists whose 770,000 km of ordinary roads will never see enough tax money for proper repair, and use it to pay for a privileged 2% to enjoy 200 impeccable kilometres”. Plus Miss Richgirl in her new hybrid that does 100 km a litre pays R1 to ride roads for which Hardscrabble Workman who can’t replace his big old bakkie pays R20. Plus no Minister of Finance will ringfence a tax, whether called fuel levy or anything else, so financial security falls away and with it the virtuous circle of roads paying for more roads.

Bottom line: from America to China go-ahead countries are building Superroads on the broad principle that for these roads to happen they aim must pay for themselves. You very much want them to happen. They enrich the country by their existence, and managed well they pay also for the next Superroad that will do more enriching.

That’s what Sanral was about. Most of what they did, they did very well. They were not just a “World Class” company but a world leader, punching above their weight in global road-making in several respects including immaculately upright systems and practices.

Why, then, the huge gemors? Three reasons.

  • State of the nation. South Africans were sick of pathetic government and the unfilled promise of liberation. We wanted a scapegoat. We picked the wrong one.
  • Wayne’s energy. Wayne had fine grounds to start his fight, where Sanral didn’t have answers or wouldn’t give answers. They could/should have created an oversight committee and asked him to chair it. Instead they gave him the brush-off that they now regret. I’ll bet now – and Wayne will deny it now, possibly angrily though so far he has tolerated my heresies very decently – that his regret is upcoming too. In five years he’ll say it’s a pity that his campaign caught such a wave, carrying it way too far.
  • Sanral’s paranoia. For building roads, financing roads, these guys get A. For public relations they do not rate an F. This is not particularly about their front man Vusi, gold medal holder for World’s Most Impossible Job. There’s complicated crap in there, a good part of it relating, omigod, to that continuing South African disease, “race”.

And their kicking me out? As you see, I’m hardly hostile to their mission. But I felt that the truth about Sanral included dealing with how they could do so much so well and still end up in so much dwang. Their feeling was, no, this truth did not need looking at. So I darken their doorstep no more.

I did the book, though, that they didn’t want to print. It’s called Drown the Lifesaver and if you ask Amazon for it, they’ll take you there. They’ll charge you, too, $5.70. I tell you that so you don’t come at me squawking that boring squawk “nyaa, you just wanna profit”. I’ve given you the book’s central message. If you want more, fine, but you can stroll away and I promise not to weep.

What I’ll weep at is seeing W’s son, and maybe my son, maybe their sons, taking all day getting to Orange Farm with no slick speedy option to be had. What I’ll weep at is seeing a future Malawi president making merry cracks about South Africa’s useless roads.

Which is why next week we’re back to the dreaded subject that is regrettably as real as it is unappealing: how we get to Seriously Sound Politics. DM


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