Sort out the toll mess

Douglas Gibson says people in charge make airy promises so that they can fool voters

Sort out the toll mess

8 January 2020

We were fortunate enough to have a holiday over the Festive Season. With our children and grandchildren we travelled to Zinkwazi in Kwà Zulu Natal. Wherever we went on the national roads, or Sanral roads would be more accurate, the highways were world-class. As soon as we entered any of the little towns, the pothole problem was obvious.

Anyone who pays attention to these matters will be aware of the consequences of a lack of maintenance. Eskom is the prime example. The loan repayments are unmanageable, let alone the billions that need to be spent on maintenance and upgrades. Town and city councils all over the country suffer from the same problem: maintenance was neglected or else became unaffordable. After a quarter of a century of this, combined with the need and indeed the imperative to upgrade inadequate and sometimes shockingly poor services in many of our townships, the backlog has grew year by year. Many councils have become overwhelmed by the challenge.

Could the same happen to Sanral? Years have now passed without any solution to the Gauteng toll road mess. Most toll road users around Johannesburg refuse to pay the toll fees. They wholeheartedly support the Wayne Duvenage-led campaign by OUTA that has probably been the most successful nonparty-political citizens campaign in South African history.

But now what? The authorities have proved unable to resolve the SANRAL funding problem. Worse is that immensely powerful people in charge of our affairs make airy promises so that they can have the best of both worlds by fooling the voters at each election. Premier Makhura of Gauteng is a champion of the abolition of the tolls around Johannesburg; Transport

Minister Mbalula promises repeatedly to solve the issue in concert with his party colleagues, who are always holding meetings. Finance Minizter Tito Mboweni, meanwhile, hàs made it clear that those who use the roads must pay for them. Those who are expecting him to find billions of Rand to subsidise SANRAL seem likely to be disappointed. His reasoning is quite simple; South Africa has run out of money and further large borrowing becomes increàsingly problematic as our indebtedness reaches unreasonable and enormously expensive levels. Sanral, too, could strike problems in terms of borrowings. The company has only one shareholder, the SA Government represented by the minister of Transport. It has assets of over R30 billion. While the leaders charged with solving the SANRAL problem have one of their endless meetings, they might like to clarify the possible solutions. It would seem that there are only a few. One would be by paying a subsidy; this seems not to be viable because the government would have to borrow money to pay it out to SANRAL. How long could that continue? Another possible solution is to increase taxation but squeezing the already overburdened taxpayer would be highly unpopular and might not produce the increased tax-take expected. The government might decide that it must enforce payment by toll road users through creating legal consequences for non-payment. An interesting possibility would be a vastly increased programme of public/private partnerships and since SANRAL has a good record in this regard through the Maputo Corridor project, this might have strong possibilities. A finaloption might be converting SANRAL into a company similar to Telkom, selling shares on the JSE while retaining 51% in government control.

Clearly, this is not a simple problem but kicking the can down the road in order to avoid taking the hard decisions thàt those in government have to take is a recipe for a gradual deterioration of our roads accompanied by increasing indebtedness and inability to pay.It is time to stop the nonsense and sort out this problem.

Douglas Gibson is a former opposition chief whip and a former ambassador to Thailand. His website is douglasgibsonsouthafrica.com.

This article first appeared in The Star