Where were today's critics back then? - Jeremy Cronin

SACP DGS on lessons to be learnt from the Gauteng freeway tolls controversy

Reading the headline of a recent story in the Business Report, I was reminded of one of Joe Slovo's (probably apocryphal) stories about the Soviet Union. In 1956 at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, its then general secretary Nikita Khrushchev launched an unprecedented criticism of the Communist Party during the previous Stalin years. Speaking to a hushed audience of several hundred delegates, Khrushchev condemned the Stalin personality cult, and began to uncover some of the horrendous crimes committed against Soviet citizens in the gulags of Siberia and elsewhere.

Three quarters of the way through this grim litany, from somewhere in the back of the congress hall, an anonymous voice called out: "And where were YOU cde Khrushchev when these crimes were being committed?" Khrushchev stopped in his tracks, looked up from his speech, and with a menacing expression demanded to know: "WHO said that!?"

There was silence in the hall. After a minute, Khrushchev went back to his speech, nodding, and gesturing into the silent rows before him: "That's where I was in those years."

As I was saying, I was reminded of this story by a headline in Monday's Business Report. The headline (in the editorializing Opinion & Analysis section) referred to the controversial Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project (GFIP). It asked: "Where was everyone at the start of the toll gantry talks?"

To quote from the Business Report story: "Presumably those making the calls [for the entire process to be stopped] don't envisage halting the road works. To interrupt the operations would be a logistical nightmare and would extend the period in which motorists have to risk their lives on highways both in poor repair and under construction. The time to have raised all these issues was when the project was first mooted in 2002. Where was everyone then? The consumers, the DA, the trade unions, transport economists, motorist bodies and others? Why did everyone only wake up to the implications a few months ahead of the proposed launch?"

The Business Report is, of course, absolutely right (although, interestingly, it doesn't ask where were its own journalists back in 2002). The GFIP, after all, wasn't a secret project. Back in 2002 Gauteng newspapers like the Star continuously splashed enthusiastic press releases and speeches by the Gauteng MEC for Transport and the provincial Premier of the time on this major toll road project that would turn Gauteng into a world-class city region. Not only was there to be the present Phase 1, but we were also promised a Phase 2 and 3.

So where WERE we? (And I include myself in this question.) Well, I was chairing the Transport Portfolio Committee in Parliament. I remember receiving annual reports from SANRAL's CEO, Nazir Allie, about this and other toll road projects. If you check Hansard you will find that some of us raised some questions about costs and about whether freeway expansion rather than public transport infrastructure was the right priority. But that was about it. In many other quarters there was enthusiastic support. What did the enthusiasts imagine - that because they are called "FREE-ways" they would come for free? One way or another, the public pays for roads.

We can all throw stones at each other now, but that will not be a very helpful exercise. We need, in the first place, to manage the reality that we now already have - a more or less completed Phase 1 GFIP and a R20-billion public debt. In the face of massive public criticism, Minister Ndebele provisionally halted further moves on tolling, and launched a consultative process with a view to finding ameliorative measures. But we need to understand that this is always going to be a post-hoc, retrofit operation.

In the second place, we need, collectively, to draw unflinching, self-critical lessons from the GFIP experience. What are they? Let me suggest a few:

  1. At the most banal level, when as politicians and the public we are informed of a major project, we need to ensure its estimated costs include VAT. This is elementary, but it is the second time, in my experience, that we've been told "whoops, sorry, we didn't include VAT". The Gautrain project used that as an excuse at one point, and now with GFIP it appears to be happening once again. This is inexcusable.
  2. The second lesson is the need to think clearly about funding models. Tolling of roads is widely used throughout the world. There are many important debates about whether this (and the more general user-pay principle on which it is based) is a more equitable approach to paying for public infrastructure than other alternatives. Clearly, with the GFIP tolling approach, there is an attempt to provide for some equity by way of targeted deductions - for example, reduced fees for public transport. Whether tolling, or a larger dedicated fuel levy, or direct financing out of the budget are the most developmental and effective means for financing major public infrastructure is something we must clearly debate, and not just in general, but specifically for different realities. However, we need to appreciate that public infrastructure is always paid for by the public - in one way or another.
  3. Which then raises the question, what are the public interest priorities when it comes to infrastructure? What, for instance, are we seeking to achieve when we expand freeway networks? Very often, and this was certainly the prime argument with GFIP, it is said that we need to expand our freeways because of growing congestion on the existing network. But does the ever-increasing widening and extension of freeways solve congestion? International experience suggests that, very often, this is not the case. More freeway lanes alleviate congestion for a few years, but simultaneously encourage more dispersed shopping malls, golf estates and townhouse property developments. Sooner rather than later congestion is back to where you began.
  4. This is not to say that we should never build or expand a freeway network, or that we should never toll such projects, or that we should never introduce congestion charging to encourage a switch to public transport or to rail freight haulage. But this brings us to a fourth lesson, if we use tolling to encourage public transport use or an increased switch to rail freight, then we had better FIRST provide affordable, accessible and safe public transport infrastructure and operations, and better rail freight.
  5. I have referred to "public" interest - but, of course, the "public" is a diverse class reality. In many US cities, an electronic tolling system on freeways may well largely impact upon upper middle-class households living in distant, well-heeled green suburbs out in the countryside. In this case, tolling is a way of making them pay for their 4X4 to work and shopping mall commuting, for their choice of life-styles. Likewise, in Gauteng it is, in part, this middle class stratum that will be impacted upon by the proposed tolls. It was also they who back in 2002 were most vociferous in demanding improved first-world freeways to suit their life-style choices. But in urban SA, there is always another reality - apartheid (and persisting land-use patterns) forced the great majority of the urban working class and poor into distant, dormitory townships. The question arises as to why (and how) THEY should (or even remotely could) pay for other people's freeway-based, first world life-styles?
  6. Over the last 17 years, a number of major and arguably poorly conceived mega-projects in the transport sector have emanated from provinces and then been escalated to national when it became apparent that a provincial budget could not possibly sustain the cost. Going forward we need to ensure that we have a much more coherent strategic approach - ensuring that national priorities (public transport or rail freight, for instance) and local challenges (branch rail-lines, or access roads) are not overwhelmed and then financially crowded-out by costly provincial projects. This, in turn, raises a much wider range of questions about the affordability and desirability of three different spheres of government, and the topical question that rises out of the recent local government elections about how to sustain the critical local government sphere.

There are many things to be learnt from the GFIP controversy going forward. We need to ensure that major public infrastructure spending is strategically prioritized, appropriately phased, and accurately costed. Above all, we need to understand that what we choose to spend on is not a class neutral and merely technical exercise.

Jeremy Cronin is deputy general secretary of the SACP and deputy minister of Transport. This article first appeared in the Party's online newsletter Umsebenzi Online.

Click here to sign up to receive our free daily headline email newsletter