It appears increasingly likely the government will once again miss its self-imposed new deadline to make a pronouncement on the future of e-tolls by the end of March 2021.
This follows Ayanda Allie Paine, spokesperson for Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula, confirming on Thursday that she is unable to confirm when Mbalula will be making an announcement about the future of e-tolls.
Paine said the report on e-tolls was sent to cabinet and that Mbalula met Finance Minister Tito Mboweni and discussed “the possibilities and representations before cabinet”.
“Now we need to wait for cabinet to make an announcement on what was chosen as the best model [going] forward.
“The matter is out of our hands as [the department of] transport,” she said.
“We have to wait until cabinet gives us the response.”
Mbalula has seemed confident
Mbalula reportedly said during a question and answer session in parliament on the State of the Nation Address in February that the government was expected to announce the decision on e-tolls in March 2021, and repeated this at a Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa event on March 15.
A cabinet meeting took place on Wednesday, but the post-meeting media statement did not mention e-tolls.
Cabinet spokesperson Phumla Williams confirmed on Thursday that e-tolls was not on the agenda of the meeting on Wednesday nor on the agenda of any recent previous cabinet meetings.
Williams was unsure when the next cabinet meeting would take place because of the Easter weekend, adding that cabinet meetings take place every two weeks.
“I suspect it may not be in two weeks because of the Easter weekend. There was one yesterday [Wednesday]. It means it [the next cabinet meeting] will then be in the week of April 8,” she said.
Williams added that a cabinet meeting would not be scheduled for next week unless it was a special cabinet meeting and that there isn’t any schedule for such meetings.
“We just get an SMS to say there is a special cabinet [meeting] but I don’t have any notice for that,” she said.
Kicking the can down the road
The government has a poor track record in honouring its commitment to make a pronouncement on e-tolls.
Mbalula confirmed in November 2019 that a cabinet decision on the controversial scheme would be taken in the next two weeks.
This followed President Cyril Ramaphosa earlier in 2019 appointing Mbalula to head a task team to report on the options available for the future of e-tolls by August 2019.
The appointment of this task team was prompted by staunch public resistance to e-tolls and the low e-tolls payment compliance rate, which was then below 19%.
A government announcement about the future of e-tolls was subsequently delayed at the end of 2019 until the first cabinet meeting in 2020.
The government has continued to dither since then without publicly announcing any decision on the scheme.
Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (Outa) CEO Wayne Duvenage said on Thursday that if cabinet is required to ratify the e-toll decision and cabinet is not meeting again before the end of this month, then it seems highly likely that once again government will miss another confirmed deadline to announce a decision on e-tolls.
“This is disappointing but why are we not surprised?” said Duvenage.
“It really does start leaving a bad taste in the mouth of society that government is unable to make rational decisions on stuff that is so glaringly obvious and so long outstanding.”
Duvenage said Outa estimate that the e-toll payment rate is now close to 15%.
Automobile Association (AA) spokesperson Layton Beard said on Thursday the long-awaited announcement by government on the future of e-tolls cannot be delayed any further and must provide a clear way forward for Gauteng road users.
Beard said the AA believes any decision that does not end the tolling system in Gauteng “is doomed to fail”.
“Government must be bold in taking a firm decision to terminate e-tolls with immediate effect, cancel any outstanding debt, reimburse those who have paid, fund e-tolls through a [nominal] tax on fuel, and do all of that before the end of March,” he said.
“Gauteng motorists have been patient, but it’s unfair to keep them guessing for much longer.”
The AA in mid-2019 released its Road Funding Report, which clearly showed that Gauteng motorists have no intention of ever paying for tolls.
Motorists object on principle
The report’s findings indicated that debt is not a factor in people’s decisions and that most took a principled decision years ago not to pay.
It also found that no amount of cajoling or enticement will change their minds.
Beard said nothing has changed, except that more allegations of corruption have been levelled against the system – which the AA believe only hardens people’s views not to pay.
This is a reference to allegations by Outa that Electronic Toll Collection (ETC), which manages the collection of e-tolls in South Africa, agreed to pay R40 million to an allegedly dodgy subcontractor two weeks before ETC won the Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project (GFIP) e-tolls contract.
“Given Sanral’s history of dismissing the public’s opinion, on top of this current indifferent approach, the current trend is that fewer people are paying and more are falling out of the system, a trend we expect to continue in the weeks ahead,” Beard said.
The AA’s report concluded that the only fair and sensible approach going forward is the immediate suspension of e-tolling in Gauteng and the reimbursement of consumers who have paid e-tolls since 2013.
Beard said the AA believes the ring-fencing of an e-toll levy linked to the General Fuel Levy on every litre of fuel is still the only equitable and viable means of funding roads.