E-tolls: Did 1% of SA’s roads ruin Nazir Alli's legacy?

An e-toll gantry in Gauteng. (Photo: iStock)
An e-toll gantry in Gauteng. (Photo: iStock)

Cape Town – It might only make up 1% of the roads covered by the South African National Roads Agency (Sanral), but the 201km worth of e-toll roads in Gauteng will likely be outgoing CEO Nazir Alli’s lasting legacy.

The outgoing CEO, who reached Sanral’s official retirement age of 65 in August, told Parliament’s Transport Portfolio Committee on Thursday that 85% of his portfolio has never been questioned.

In fact, Sanral has always delivered an unqualified audit report, a sign of a well-run company. However, the company reported a R1.1bn loss in the 2014/2015 financial year.

Sanral is responsible for 18 259km (85%) of non-tolled national roads, 1 913km (9%) of tolled roads and 1 279km (6%) of build-operate-transfer roads.

Alli, who has been CEO of Sanral since its inception in 1998, oversaw the implementation of the controversial Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project.  “The fuss is about 201km of road,” he said. “It doesn’t even constitute 1% of the network of South Africa.”

Refusing to accept there is any alternative to e-tolls, Alli questioned the moral standing of those who don’t pay their e-toll bills.

“Let us not be selective about the rules of the land we want to obey,” he said. “Just because they are contrary to our belief, it doesn’t mean you can ignore them.”

He said the Sanral Act made the non-payment of tolls an offence. Gauteng road users owe Sanral R6.1bn due to unpaid toll fees since December 3 2014, he said.

“No one in Gauteng is complaining about the quality of the roads,” he said. “No one complains that the national road is pothole free.”

Alli said there was no alternative model to pay for road upgrades in Gauteng. “We’re not a North American country where we can print money,” he said. “It’s not an option. What surprises me in the business sector is that they believe when government borrows money… that it doesn’t have to be repaid.”

According to the Ipsos survey quoted in Gauteng Premier David Makhura’s report on the e-tolls, 34% of those surveyed said the tariffs were reasonable, 27% were neutral and 38% said the tariffs were unreasonable.

This, Alli said, proved that the e-tolls was on track. “During the first several months of the financial year, matters were settling down, with 1.3 million e-tag holders paying for the use of these roads,” he said in his annual report.

Anti-tolling group Outa said this is an “extremely misleading” statement.

It said it was strange “that the same number of 1.3 million e-tag holders are paying for Gauteng’s e-tolls, which was also the figure used at the height of their compliance levels in mid-2014, despite the clear indication that e-toll revenues reduced by almost half – to an average of around R70m per month in the first half of 2015.”

There is building pressure within the ANC Youth League (ANCYL) – which once supported Sanral – to scrap e-tolls.

"We must investigate other means to fund massive infrastructure projects that the ANC-led government has continued to carry out in the quest of improving the lives of our people," said secretary general Njabulo Nzuza earlier this month.

That’s a big shift from two years ago, when ANCYL League leader Mzwandile Masina said: "We call upon the public to comply with e-toll plans so that the state does not default.”

In May, Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a new e-tolls dispensation in a bid to end the extreme opposition to the project. Gauteng’s e-toll fees for light motor vehicles were reduced from 58c/km to 30c/km and the monthly cap was reduced from R450 a month to R225. There would be no fees charged for people who made less than 30 gantry passes a year.

In his final appearance before the Transport Committee, Alli said it was time South Africans respected the basic rules of the land.

He said South Africans have an appalling safety record, with no respect for the rules of the road and thought if they didn’t get caught speeding or jumping a traffic light, it would be ok.

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