By John Fraser
It was interesting to note the coverage of some rather unclear remarks by Finance Minister Tito Mboweni in his mini-budget speech on the controversial e-tolls – the fees charged for using upgraded Gauteng motorways.
At least, I found them ambiguous. He said:
Government has decided to retain the user-pay principle. While there will be a further dispensation and value-added services, compliance will also be strengthened.
Not paying your tolls has already led to our roads deteriorating. We have been unable to maintain the network. I urge the nation to please pay your bills.
We need to build a culture of payment, as government services can only be sustainable if all of us that can pay for services, do so.
I did try to challenge him on this during a press briefing but was let down by a dry throat. Those of us in Pretoria were forced to shriek our questions at a screen/hidden microphone, which was our end of a link-up to events in Cape Town.
My dry throat was partly due to being held in an over-heated room for a briefing which started 45 minutes late.
I tried to suggest to Tito that e-tolls are just ONE WAY of implementing the user-pays principle, but I croaked out my question and did not get much of an answer.
In general, the media coverage was pretty unanimous, reporting that the tolls were here to stay.
However, less than 24 hours after Tito’s teaser, a statement came from one of his ministerial colleagues (opponents?), once again using the governmental communications device of ambiguity.
The Minister of Transport Fikile Mbalula has noted the directive of Cabinet on the matter of the Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project (GFIP), which incorporates electronic tolling (e-tolls).
Cabinet noted the options considered by the Task Team appointed by the President of the Republic Cyril Ramaphosa, comprising Minister Mbalula as the Chairperson, Finance Minister Tito Mboweni and Gauteng Premier David Makhura.
Having duly noted the options presented, Cabinet resolved that further work be undertaken in answering to the challenges posed by the options identified. The Task Team will explore the directives of Cabinet, continue engaging stakeholders and report back.
The Minister of Transport will communicate the details once the process has been finalised.
The task team seems to have recommended that e-tolls be retained, with discounted charges.
However, lobby group OUTA has lobbed a challenge to this, pointing out the pathetic record to date in collecting the toll cash, and suggesting a more effective mechanism, such as collection through a fuel levy.
What is not clear is whether this option has been booted through the window by Tito, or if some more effective plan is still possible, which might improve the collection of cash for the use of the improved freeways
The media coverage suggests that Tito has won.
I hope not.
NB. Soon after this was first published, the Transport Minister held a hasty briefing, in which he confirmed that the scrapping of e-tolls is STILL an option, and no decision has yet been made.