Opinionista John Clarke 12 May 2015

An e-toll story OUTA would like to see

Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa’s announcement on the future of e-tolls is long overdue. Sanral has suspended its bond auctions, Transport Minister Dipuo Peters has delivered her budget speech and Vusi Mona’s media statements are showing signs of desperation. OUTA, along with the unions, church and business organisations and millions of motorists, have demonstrated active citizenship to hold government accountable on the e-toll fiasco, and now patiently awaits Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa’s announcement on the way forward.

“The human imagination is more powerful than the will,” a wise man once said. Echoing the Dinokeng Scenario Planning workshops held in 2008, here is an imaginary media conference headline story that society would love to read, which is framed within the “Walk Together” scenario.

Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa has confounded cynics and placed the government on a new trajectory toward trust, by inviting critics of Sanral to join in a multilateral process, facilitated by a seven person social audit team, to ensure the State-Owned Enterprise transforms in keeping with Constitutional values and principles.

Speaking at a special media conference at the Union Buildings yesterday, journalists were astonished by his frank acknowledgement that Sanral had taken a wrong turn. “The state has travelled down a road that is taking the agency further and further away from a high standard of professional ethics, development orientation, sensitivity to people’s needs, transparency and the provision of access to information as entrenched in Chapter 10 of the Constitution.”

He added: “We now know with greater clarity that enforcing compliance on the e-toll matter is not sustainable, unless the greater majority of citizens and public servants work with an ethos of inspired commitment. While Sanral CEO Nazir Alli has certainly shown a very impressive measure of personal commitment in his leadership of Sanral, it is now clear that government has failed him by allowing the perversities of politics and money rather than the prudence of sound economics to distort Sanral’s mandate. State-owned enterprises are meant to operate at arm’s length from government – but no further than an arm. It appears we have allowed the private sector to take an arm and a leg, using Sanral for odious commercial gain.”

Ramaphosa’s critique did not stop there. “The construction sector have by their own admission failed to honour the implied social contract in Public Private Partnerships (PPP), by engaging in collusive practices and price fixing in construction contracts,” he continued. “Had they sought benefit optimisation for the three key stakeholders – the state, the private sector and civil society – rather than crude profit maximisation for themselves, it is likely that the e-toll system may just have had a chance of succeeding, were it conducted in conjunction with a search for efficient public transport alternatives.”

Ramaphosa said it was never in dispute that Sanral had excellent professional staff and was much admired internationally for their engineering achievements. “However, the process of forging public private partnerships with the private sector in order to find new ways of addressing the road construction and maintenance, has unfortunately proved to be reminiscent of the Biblical parable of the ‘weeds sown among the wheat’. The day of judgement has arrived and it is time for the reckoning. It is time for the private sector to pay back the money, and for a new partnership to be forged, which will include the people together with the Public and Private Sectors,” he said, to the disbelief of journalists.

Nevertheless, he added that, paradoxically, the open road tolling process has produced some meaningful success. “Not in financial terms, for here it has been an utter financial disaster, but in the lessons learned when the state does not pay attention to the views of the public. This matter has demonstrated that open road tolling can only work through meaningful open consultation with open books and transparency.”

Turning to the issue of the massive legal bills that Sanral and its adversaries have run up in protracted litigation in several Sanral schemes, Ramaphosa said that while it was necessary for the courts to give clarity and definition to the meaning of legislation, Sanral had made the mistake of believing the courts of law could remedy problems raised in the court of public opinion. “When has an adversarial process ever created trust and understanding? That is not within the powers of the courts.

“Sanral has excessively relied on the judiciary to resolve their trust problems with society, and has in turn created a problem for the Executive and the Legislature, with the governing party now weakened in both the national and provincial legislatures, and losing political ground. Henceforth, Sanral will now be less prone to take their chances in court, and instead, will exhaust alternative dispute resolution mechanisms, along with far greater proactive public engagement, whever a hint of conflict becomes evident in its work,” Ramaphosa said, adding that the backlog in criminal cases was an much more urgent priority for judicial officers, given the levels of crime and corruption.

Ramaphosa thanked Premier David Makhura and the GPG for the work done by the Advisory Panel, but said he could not endorse the key main recommendation, which proposed a hybrid model that retained e-tolling, with other revenue streams to lessen the burden on the poor. “We have consulted with a number of transport economists from different schools of thought, and the common ground between them seems to be that the overriding imperative of any intelligent transport system must first be supported by safe, affordable and reliable public transport alternatives, before using financial incentive measures to get middle class drivers out of their cars and onto buses, trains and car pool arrangements.”

Nevertheless Ramphosa did recognise that it made no sense for a National Roads Agency to be managing an intelligent transport system for a provincial transport authority. “Sanral is in the roads business and is measured on its performance in building roads. There is a structural problem which requires correcting, to enable the larger National Transport Agency to have optimised and integrated solutions with regional and local authorities, whilst ensuring the National agency does not become an all-powerful autocratic entity. It must be geared as a demand-driven resource to service the needs of regional and local governments, so they can serve their citizens, who pay taxes for the benefits of urban efficiencies and convenience.”

Ramaphosa said that this principle, known as ‘subsidiarity’ is also entrenched in the structure of the European Union. “I regret we didn’t pay more attention to it when we were drafting the Constitution, but it is implied in the principle of self-determination, and there is nothing to stop the national agency from offering technological expertise to assist the Metros of Gauteng, to effectively address a much bigger cause of congestion and productivity losses to the economy.”

Ramaphosa added that enough research had been done and that the key objective of the seven-person audit team would simply be to assist Sanral to work out its commitments in terms of Section 195, “and to assist stakeholders to identify the areas of common ground with Sanral, and to then work to grow that common ground”.

“There are still enough of us in politics today to remember how victory was snatched from the jaws of defeat during the first democratic elections. Because of the spirit of active citizenship that prevailed, the IEC achieved an impossible task. Sanral needs to learn from the lessons of twenty years ago and enrol users of its services in a three-way partnership, a Public, Private and People partnership, with civil society organisations who can mediate the felt needs of their members to Sanral. A commitment to the values and principles of Section 195 simply cannot be fulfilled without that. Fighting civil society in court only serves to alienate and antagonise.”

Sanral CEO Nazir Alli was present alongside the Deputy President. When invited by the Deputy President to take the podium to have his say, he modestly thanked the Deputy President for his insightful guidance, and responded to questions.

A journalist asked Nazir Alli how the new ‘walk together’ approach would affect the litigation that Sanral is still mired in, notably the N2 Wild Coast Toll Road shortcut through Pondoland and the N1/N2 Cape Winelands scheme.

Before Alli could respond, Ramaphosa said that he had already approached Helen Zille, who has time on her hands, to be an ad hoc member of the facilitating team, and an announcement would be made soon on that issue.

Mr Alli responded by saying that with only some months before his retirement, he would hand over all managerial and administrative responsibilities to a successor, and devote as much time as possible to critically reflect on how he and the Sanral Board could have done things differently, so that his successor could perhaps be spared some of pain and suffering he had endured. “While I accept that we have made some serious errors of judgement on the e-toll decision, some of these reasons lay beyond Sanral’s control. The other big shock to me was the betrayal of what I thought was a trusting relationship with the construction industry and I will request that an independent enquiry is commissioned to get to the bottom of these issues, following which action to recover all moneies due to society are retrieved.”

Ramaphosa closed the media briefing by clearly indicating his keen interest to ensure a collaborative working committee between all relevent stakeholders would be convened to discuss the most efficient and effective mechanisms to address road infrastructure and integrated public transport solutions to address our major cities congestion problems.

“Until then, the current e-toll scheme will be halted and negotiations will commense to extract the state from current contracts. We would like to assure the public that government has recognised their civil courage and stance taken in this matter and we look forward to the development of a more beneficial relationship betwee the state and society on projects of this nature going forward,” said Ramaphosa. DM


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