Home News What the heck is going on with e-tolls?

What the heck is going on with e-tolls?

by Zahid Jadwat

The e-toll saga continues. [Picture: Gallo Images/Daniel Born]

 

Four officials. Four stories. More than R20 billion in unpaid debt. This week, conflicting stories emerged after Panyaza Lesufi promised to scrap e-tolls by no later than the end of March. Will e-tolls be scrapped?

It has been more than ten years and much litigation since Gauteng, the economic powerhouse of South Africa, rolled out gigantic white structures to toll motorists on the province’s busy highways.

Massively unpopular, the structures have largely been ignored by motorists. The majority simply do not pay, saying they were not consulted before the South African National Roads Agency Limited (SANRAL) imposed the gantries on their roads.

Some thought it was meant to beef up security before the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Others had no idea. Many were caught off guard when they were suddenly meant to pay for roads previously used for free. Thus the Opposition to Urban Tolling Alliance (OUTA) was born.

“We’re not opposed to road traffic law. We’re not opposed to great roads that SANRAL is responsible for. We’ve never said that SANRAL is this evil institution. We just believe that this e-tolling system was … pushed through for nefarious reasons,” said Andrea van Heerden.

She is the senior legal project manager at the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (OUTA), the successor to OUTA 1.0. At the heart of the matter, she said, was the “roughshod” public participation process before the tolling system was instituted.

That is why Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana’s October 2022 announcement that e-tolls would effectively be done away with was met with wild applause from the public.

 

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Debt payment

A plan was hatched for the national government to foot 70% of the R20 billion debt owed by SANRAL, with the remaining 30% being paid by the provincial government.

Twice since, Panyaza Lesufi, provincial premier, promised to shut them down. But in a recent interview with Jacaranda FM, the finance minister said his part was done – SANRAL had been paid. It was now up to Lesufi’s government to tie it up.

Enter Mampho Modise, deputy director-general of public finance at National Treasury. Last week, he threw more confusion onto the matter when he told Moneyweb that “Gauteng has agreed that that debt should and will be collected”. Essentially, motorists still have to foot the bill.

Said van Heerden: “Now, you have this very expensive, R20 billion infrastructure project that you’re running, but you don’t have the buy-in of the people who are opposing this because no consultation took place. You’re expecting ordinary taxpayers to pay for this administrative decision which, we believe, is just ludicrous.”

 

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Alternative uses 

Then came word from the Minister of Transport, Sindisiwe Chikunga. Attempting to clear the confusion, she told viewers of Newzroom Afrika the structures would be disabled for e-tolling but used for other purposes.

“What we are working towards is switching off the gantries for e-toll purposes – but not for other purposes. We will use the gantries for crime-prevention purposes – no longer for e-tolls,” she said.

That is something van Heerden and OUTA agreed was an appropriate alternative to the unpopular e-tolls.

“There are a lot of things they can do with the infrastructure. It doesn’t have to be used for tolling, but law enforcement will benefit hugely from infrastructure like that. It’s very sophisticated infrastructure.”

Even so, however, there are mammoth regulatory changes that need to take effect between now and the 31 March deadline. For example, the roads will have to be declared non-toll roads.

But when the deadline comes, OUTA is ready to make sure no motorist has to fork out a cent, it’s promised.

“At the end of the day, they have a deadline of 31 March. When that deadline comes and the e-tolls are not scrapped, OUTA will pursue this further. We will evaluate our position but we are going to force this change to happen one way or another,” she said.

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