I am afraid, Minister Peters, your statement in this week’s budget speech that “e-Tolls are here to stay” signifies just how out of touch you are with the reality of this situation. You may believe that e-Tolls are here to stay and you can shout this from the roof tops, but more powerful than is the message which echoes back at you from those whom you serve, which says, “for as long as e-tolls is here to stay, so too will be the civil disobedience campaign against the scheme”.
You appear to accept the advice and input from your Sanral lieutenants, who constantly mislead all and sundry about a growing buy-in to the ill-fated e-toll scheme, yet every ounce of external information available to you suggests otherwise.
Following two-and-a-half years of existence, despite one of the most heavily funded government marketing campaigns, combined with a grossly coercive legal summons process, the scheme fails to garner one-third of the 90% compliance levels required for success.
Just this week, a prominent online news portal ran a blind public poll to gauge acceptance of the six-month old discount offer. The results from over 38,600 respondents, was that 91% said they would not take up the discount offer or would never pay toward the e-toll scheme. This result is similar to many polls undertaken on the topic over the past few years. The fact that the scheme even achieves about 30% uptake has nothing to do with acceptance, and everything to do with duress and coercion.
Research shows that in every instance where these Intelligent Transport Schemes succeed, the authorities achieved overwhelming public acceptance and willing support through a transparent and vigorous engagement process, long before the respective schemes were launched. This of course was backed up in virtually every instance by good administrative controls within the vehicle licensing space, a low cost of collection scheme and a safe and reliable public transport alternative.
Sadly, every single element required for success was missing in the Gauteng project. Had your Sanral leadership done their homework in this regard, they might have discovered the problems that lay ahead for them and abandoned the plan long before it was launched, just as the authorities wisely chose to do in Manchester, Edinburgh and other cities, when they saw the writing on the wall. It appears that Sanral management is blaming the fact that they couldn’t read the writing on this particular wall, because it fell on top of them.
To compound your woes, as the minister who has been lumbered with this hot potato, is the fact that your state-owned entity did not even conduct their own board approval obligations in accordance with their own act’s requirements, as was recently exposed in the Western Cape judgment which found Sanral severely wanting and as a result, have had their urban freeway toll road declaration rejected by the courts in that province. The similarities of fact and fate lie in wait for the Gauteng scheme, now that the forthcoming defensive court hearing process has been triggered by Sanral’s relentless pursuit of public persecution. This situation, Minister, will unfortunately go down as a most incredible case of state coercion and public victimisation in our new democracy. And, sadly, your name will be assigned to this shameful debacle.
The people will not tolerate Sanral’s gross lack of transparency coupled with sheer arrogance and ongoing propaganda campaign to mislead them with false claims of e-toll acceptance. This has given rise to a rapidly growing disrespect and mistrust of this once revered state-owned entity and it is indeed a sad state of affairs. Believe it or not, we do not want to see the demise and failure of Sanral, nor to witness its great team of road-building expertise go to waste.
To add fuel to the flames of public wrath, research (which Sanral’s bosses recently attempted to dismiss), shows that under Sanral’s watch the construction costs of the Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project were allowed to escalate to R17.9-billion. Realistic estimates and benchmarking to similar road construction costs in South Africa place the value for this project at about R8-billion. Your citizens are now left with an unacceptable odious debt which has a bad smell about it – one which will not go away.
With all due respect, Minister, your “user pays” mantra is grossly flawed. Other provincial freeway upgrade announcements proceed with open claims that these will not be tolled. Why the discrimination between provinces? Why does government claim the fuel levy has a greater negative impact on the poor, yet they proceed to increase the fuel levy by 156% (from R1.11c/L to R2.88c/L) over the past nine years, now churning out R64-billion from motorists into Treasury’s coffers?
Even the Presidential Committee Report which reviewed State-Owned Entities in 2013 suggests that social infrastructure, including roads, would be better funded from the proceeds of normal taxation and less so through a user pays scheme.
It appears that in this instance, as is often the case with many a large-scale government capital expenditure project (Medupi et al), the government is stuck with the awkward “sunk cost dilemma”. This happens when it becomes hard to fathom the decision of halting the scheme after so much money has already been poured into the project. A case of, “The decision was made and the gantries are up, so we can’t go back now regardless of what the people think or say”. “The e-tolls are here to stay,” they say, as they continue to throw good money after bad while further alienating the state from its citizens.
Well, I’m afraid it doesn’t work like that in the real world, Minister. What is required is a change of mind. A change of strategy. A meaningful embrace of the people and your critics may go a long way to finding our solution to this impasse. The historians will tell you that digging the trenches deeper is a dangerous place to go.
By the way, I haven’t as yet received my “simple summons” for Sanral’s so-called e-toll debt. Please can you pass my vehicle registration number: CT15ZPGP on to Mr Nazir Alli and company. DM