Opinionista Wayne Duvenage 20 September 2019

When seeking transparency touches a nerve, it’s time to dig deeper

Sanral is a State-owned Entity, which means that its assets and all that it does are owned by the people of South Africa, the same people who will have to bail it out when it gets into debt it cannot service. So when Sanral CEO Skhumbuzo Macozoma lashes out at OUTA for raising concerns about another R7bn loan, we should be worried about why they are so sensitive to civil society’s request for greater transparency.

Since its inception in 1998, Sanral has emerged as a formidable state entity that builds and maintains world-class roads for South Africa. There can be no doubt that Sanral has great engineers and South Africa needs this organisation to survive. However, its success has been trashed through blind arrogance and the loss of purpose to serve in the best interests of the people, instead of political masters or foreign-based toll service providers.

When public institutions fail to be accountable and transparent on matters of public interest, they give rise to civil activism and come under greater scrutiny by tax-paying citizens, who have every right to ask fitting questions and demand honest answers.

OUTA was birthed as a result of Sanral’s flawed and dubious decision to introduce an electronic tolling scheme that had all the hallmarks of failure, long before it was launched in December 2013. Sanral’s e-toll woes were further exacerbated by its lack of transparency and regular misleading information plied by its leadership as they tried to coerce and threaten the public to comply with their irrational and grossly overpriced scheme.

Extremely concerning to the public was the discovery that Sanral had allowed the construction industry to deliberately or ignorantly pull the wool over their eyes, leading to a massively overpriced upgrade of the 187km Gauteng freeway project at R18-billion.

OUTA and economists believe the cost should have been substantively lower, with OUTA’s informed estimates placing the right price for the project between R9-billion and R10-billion, around half of what Sanral paid. This alone gives the public every right to be angry and defy Sanral’s “user-(over)-pays” scheme.

More worrying, though, was the discovery that Sanral had told the public that the Austrian based Electronic Toll Collection (ETC) company had won the five-year tender to manage the toll “operation services” portion at a fee of R4.73-billion, when in fact the contract that Sanral signed with ETC in September 2011 reflects that figure at R8.2-billion. What did Sanral expect the public’s reaction to be when it discovered this gross abuse of their hard-earned money, which still remains unexplained?

When Sanral’s CEO says OUTA should be held accountable for driving an “illegal” civil disobedience campaign to boycott the overpriced and irrational toll and road construction project, I say bring it on. We’re sick and tired of being treated like subjects and minions whom Sanral expects to keep quiet and pay up. It’s time for Sanral’s leadership to be introspective of the real reasons why they are in their current mess, instead of blaming their critics for their demise.

And on the matter of whether society’s civil disobedience campaign is “illegal” – as Mr Macozoma claims – we need to remind him that the e-toll test case (that his organisation has spent millions of rand of taxpayers’ money to summons several thousand e-toll defaulters) is where the legality of the scheme will be tested. It is however unfortunate that his organisation chose to halt the legal test case in March 2019, demonstrating that Sanral does not take this matter seriously.

What Mr Skhumbuzo appears to overlook is that it matters first and foremost that Sanral conducts itself in a manner befitting of our constitutional rights for meaningful public consultation and participation in these high-impact decisions. It matters that he also explains in great detail the 75% difference between the tendered toll operation services costs and that which was reflected in the ETC contract. It matters also that Sanral explains why they expect society to pay e-toll administration fees that equate to 61% of the cost to finance the freeway upgrade, when the world average is around 10%.

Yes, we are angry and will continue to drive a civil action campaign to bring the world’s most expensive, inefficient and grossly irrational scheme to a halt. We do so in the quest to see an improved alternative funding solution to the impasse and, more importantly, we trust that in future, decisions of this magnitude will be carried out more carefully, with better research and substantive public engagement to include the interests of the people at the core of the plan.

Mr Skhumbuzo does himself no favours when he implies that OUTA is not qualified to raise questions about another R7-billion being added to Sanral’s existing R47-billion debt pile, especially when Sanral states that “The [R7-billion] funds from the NDB [New Development Bank] will enable Sanral to bring forward much-needed improvements to toll road infrastructure across the country which were delayed because of the declining income for the Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project.”

This implies that toll revenues from Gauteng’s Phase 1 upgrade were to be used to fund toll road infrastructure in other parts of the country. Where is the “user-pays” principle in that statement, we ask, and if indeed the R7-billion loan is to be used as upfront financing of “new” toll road projects, which new or existing roads can we expect to be declared as tolled roads?

The greater the lack of transparency, the louder society will rightfully demand answers and the more they will push back. The consequential difficulties that arise from heightened civil courage, emanates from Sanral’s ongoing ignorance (maybe even deliberate ignorance?) or its inability to be introspective.

There are a number of self-inflicted reasons that drive the public to defy your so-called e-toll laws, Sanral, and they’re not all related to OUTA’s action. Go figure, it’s not rocket science. DM

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