Scrapping e-tolls not a simple ‘yes-or-no question’, says Mbalula

The sun sets over an e-toll gantry on the N1 highway near Randburg, 16 September 2014. Picture: Michel Bega

The sun sets over an e-toll gantry on the N1 highway near Randburg, 16 September 2014. Picture: Michel Bega

Transport minister Fikile Mbalula says there is a lot to consider in the e-toll debate, but doing away with it entirely is not on the table.

Transport minister Fikile Mbalula says there are no easy solutions to the demand that e-tolling in Gauteng be scrapped because the debt incurred by the Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project (GFIP) still has to be paid off.

Speaking on the sidelines of the Southern African Transport Conference on Monday, Mbalula spoke of the importance of a “win-win” solution for government and society. He asked “how do we meet each other half-way in this?” and touched on how government is managing and dealing with all the challenges it faces.

Mbalula says there are many things government is looking at but that, in the main, it is responding to the demand that the government must scrap e-tolls.

Challenges

“If we do away with e-tolls, not e-tolls in particular but the gantries because you still have e-tolls all over in terms of our national roads, there are challenges and how do we overcome those challenges?

“It’s a hard debate. It’s robust. Treasury is hard on the discussion because of what they are confronted with.”

Mbalula says the SA National Roads Agency (Sanral) needs to have the capacity to borrow, but cannot borrow any more, which affects South Africa’s credit rating and how the rating agencies look at the country. He adds that these are issues government is interrogating in looking at a solution and that “the demand on the table is like a gun facing us that we must do away with the gantries”.

Task team appointed

Mbalula says President Cyril Ramaphosa has established a task team (led by the minister of transport) that must report to him on the options on the table with regard to e-tolls. He says there will be a comprehensive response from the task team by the end of August, but stressed that this is not “a yes-or-no question”.

Mbalula says that if e-tolls on the GFIP were scrapped, they had to interrogate where they would get the money from to service the debt “because the debt is not going to go away”.

“Those are the realities. We are hard at work and we will have a team of experts working under the ministers. We will interrogate all the options. There will be no holy cows.

“At the end we will come up with a solution to this particular matter because we have heard the demands of our people.”

Leaders in a tweet fight

Fierce disagreement and debate over e-tolls between finance minister Tito Mboweni and Gauteng premier David Makhura played out on Twitter at the weekend, leading to Ramaphosa instructing the two to work together to find a solution.

This followed Makhura, in his state of the province address last Monday (July 1) repeating that e-tolls would be scrapped, resulting in Mboweni tweeting that users of the e-toll system must pay. Mboweni warned Makhura not to “pick a fight” with the finance minister, who is in charge of provincial allocations.

“I am certain that the Premier of Gauteng knows that you have to be careful before you pick up a fight with a National Minister of Finance. The one who controls allocations! I would be careful if I were him,” he tweeted.

Makhura responded with the tweet: “I have referred the e-tolls matter to President@CyrilRamaphosa for final resolution; My engagements [with] him and Minister @MbalulaFikile have been positive. Minister @tito_mboweni can continue to tweet as he cooks; he is a Minister, not the President. #NoTurningBack.”

A ‘sensitive matter’

Mbalula said on Monday that he was not going to respond to public spats, adding that it is unfortunate for a matter like e-tolls to be reduced to a Twitter discussion when “it is a sensitive matter because communities feel very hurt about this and we need to persuade them to a certain extent if we have to”.

Mbalula says Mboweni became angry before the recent general election when certain things in terms of Sanral’s user-pay policy were cancelled.

“He [Mboweni] has got all the reasons to be angry and to guide us in terms of the solution. Let’s not undermine that because he is minister of finance. Where you get a minister of finance that agrees to everything, this country will go down.

“We will negotiate hard with them [Treasury] … but they must equally understand that we need a solution to this matter,” he said.

Outa has a plan …

Wayne Duvenage, chief executive of the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (Outa), says e-tolls cannot be resurrected, and that Outa is willing to assist government in finding legitimate solutions to end the impasse.

Its proposal regarding settling the e-toll debt includes:

  • Renegotiating the debt with the Public Investment Corporation,
  • Terminating the collections contract with Electronic Toll Collections because this is seen as a massive and unnecessary cost, and
  • Reassessing the national budget to include allocations by Treasury towards the debt, including a possible allocation from the fuel levy.

Duvenage says the organisation also believes Sanral may be owed more revenue from the profits made by the three main toll concessionaires on long-distance tolled routes, and has urged Treasury to investigate these contracts and reclaim the funds owed to Sanral.

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