It’s high noon for the future of e-tolls on the Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project (GFIP).
A final decision on the controversial scheme is expected to be made in Wednesday’s budget speech, following the lengthy stand-off between the motoring public and government over the non-payment of e-tolls.
Wayne Duvenage, CEO of the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (Outa), said on Monday it expects e-tolls to be scrapped, with the decision being communicated either in the budget or in a cabinet announcement this week.
The Democratic Alliance (DA) in Gauteng however expects Finance Minister Tito Mboweni to announce in his budget speech that e-tolls are here to stay.
Delays and indecision
In his medium-term budget policy statement in October last year, Mboweni announced that government had decided to retain the user-pay principle and e-tolls on GFIP. However, there would be a further dispensation and value-added services while compliance would also be strengthened, he said
There have been repeated delays by government in announcing its decision about the future of e-tolls.
The most recent of these follows Minister in the Presidency Jackson Mthembu giving the assurance at the post-cabinet meeting media briefing in December that a decision would be taken in the first cabinet meeting of 2020.
“We will give South Africa an idea about what we are going to do with the Gauteng e-tolls, but secondly we will also give South Africans an idea on how are we going to improve our road infrastructure throughout the country.
“The decision that cabinet might ultimately arrive at might go beyond GFIP, but I think you will also be very proud of the options that cabinet would have agreed on,” he said.
Cabinet decision still under wraps
The first cabinet meeting of the year was held on February 12, but no media conference was organised because of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation Address. A media statement issued last week that included the decisions taken at the meeting did not mention e-tolls.
Acting cabinet spokesperson Phumla Williams said on Monday the media statement only included updates of what was discussed by cabinet.
Williams was unable to comment on the status of the decision on e-tolls, adding: “I’m only responding to decisions that were taken by cabinet, and that was what was in the statement.”
Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula was appointed by Ramaphosa to head a task team to report to him on the options on the table with regard to e-tolls, with the recommendations in the report debated by cabinet last year.
Attempts to obtain comment on Monday from Mbalula’s spokesperson, Ayanda-Allie Paine, were unsuccessful.
Duvenage said the government has reneged several times on promises made to the public last year about announcing a decision on the future of e-tolls, which has resulted in a void.
Hints that it may be scrapped
Duvenage said Outa expects e-tolls to be scrapped because the e-toll management contract for GFIP, which was extended in December for a further three months, has not been extended and expires early next month and no e-tolls summonses have been issued for a year.
However Duvenage conceded that government could extend this contract at the last minute, as it did in December.
“The scheme is dead,” he said. “What are they going to do? If they try and resurrect it, there will be chaos and absolute outrage.”
Duvenage said Outa’s legal case to defend 2 500 to 3 000 motorists who received summonses for non-payment of e-tolls was stopped, because the SA National Road Agency (Sanral) told its legal team to stop enforcement.
Summonses ‘in limbo’
He said these summonses are still “in limbo” because Sanral’s legal team has on several occasions not responded to questions about what the stopping of enforcement meant for Outa’s case, stating that they were waiting for instructions from their client.
“Our case is still extremely strong and it’s stronger now that they [Sanral] have just capitulated,” said Duvenage. “They don’t have a case anymore.
“I don’t know what argument they have to defend themselves in court, let alone in the court of public opinion.”
The Automobile Association (AA) said on Monday that it would be a dangerous and ultimately damaging tactic, especially for the poor in the country, if the government turned to fuel levies as a source of revenue in the budget.
This appeared to contradict an AA statement issued earlier this month in which it said the findings of extensive research conducted among motorists are unambiguous and support calls for a review of e-tolls, with a view to scrapping them entirely and finding alternative funding mechanisms, such as adding to the General Fuel Levy currently imposed on fuel.
However, AA spokesperson Layton Beard confirmed that the AA has always said that e-toll costs should be included in the fuel levy – but that this does not mean the fuel levy must increase.
“There must be a portion within the existing fuel levy that must be ring-fenced specifically for e-tolls without increasing the levy,” he said.