According to Business Day, the application for secrecy on the grounds of “commercial confidentiality” would, if granted, prevent information on the envisaged tariffs, the amount of revenue for the operator and the overall costs of the project from being aired in open court.
One would normally associate applications of this nature with security agencies anxious to protect state secrets – not a public entity responsible for building and maintaining the major road networks, and funded by the taxpayer.
SANRAL’s strategy has been a disaster from the start. Leaving aside whether etolls are the best option to help fund SANRAL’s efforts to maintain our national roads and lay new ones (I have a few thoughts about a better option at the bottom of this post), SANRAL has hardly embarked on a campaign to win public support. Instead it seems to have started out convinced that it was on the right path; became bewildered when it found itself facing pretty strong and vocal public opposition and then went on the attack and lashed out at anyone who criticised the initiative. This latest move is a continuation of this absurd strategy.
According to Business Day’s article “Sanral tries to keep Cape toll details secret“, this latest process follows on from Cape Town’s successful application to interdict SANRAL from continuing with its etolls program for the N1 and N2 until the dispute between the City and the Agency could be heard by a court. SANRAL then refused to disclose a number of documents on the basis that they are, allegedly, confidential.
The mayoral committee member for transport, Brett Herron, said although the May order had compelled Sanral to provide a full set of documentation to the city to enable it to prepare court papers, the agency had delayed doing so for nine months. “Sanral claimed the documents were confidential. We eventually got them in February this year on the basis that those who had access to them signed a confidentiality agreement. Sanral said should any of the confidential information be included in our papers, they would apply to prevent us from filing them in open court,” Mr Herron said on Monday.
He said the supplementary papers included a range of information that Sanral has so far refused to share with the public. These include: how much it will cost to convert the N1 and N2 into toll roads; the proposed fees; the revenue the preferred bidder expects from the project; and how much of every rand collected in fees will be spent on project infrastructure and operations, as opposed to road improvements, maintenance and operational work.
The papers also include a number of expert reports dealing with issues such as the economic and socioeconomic effects of tolling, which the city argues will have a disproportionate effect on the poor.
SANRAL is going to ask the court to effectively shut the public out of the court hearings to protect what it will apparently argue is fairly confidential information. I’m curious what SANRAL hopes to achieve by adding even more opacity to its etolls programs. Writing about the Protection of State Information Bill in his article titled “Secrecy is the enemy of democracy“, Constitutional lawyer Pierre De Vos made these comments which are relevant to SANRAL’s efforts:
Secrecy is the enemy of democracy, accountability and the fight against corruption and nepotism. This Bill is so broadly drawn that if it is passed it will be abused. We already know that the state unlawfully ignores thousands of access to information requests every year as most state officials are either too lazy to attend to such requests or they believe that citizens do not have a right to information held by the state. With this powerful tool in their hands, heads of government departments and other organs of state will now be able to put formidable legal obstacles in the way of anyone who wishes to expose incompetence, corruption and criminality.
Perhaps what SANRAL should have done is put aside its paranoia and adopt a far more transparent approach. Instead of virtually stamping its metaphorical feet and insisting on its right to roll out etolls (no discussion), SANRAL could have explained to the public why etolls was the best of the options it considered; what the costs would be; how it would all work and, most importantly, what the benefits for South Africans would be once the program is fully implemented.
It could have placed more constructive emphasis on the cost savings achieved by registering and buying etags and put more effort into setting up a secure website where consumers’ personal information would not be susceptible to being exploited using backdoors and poor security features (how difficult is it to establish an effective and secure login?).
When challenged by the public, political parties and unions, SANRAL’s executives should have spent more time listening, really listening, to what these stakeholders had to say and either presented compelling and rational arguments to dispel doubts or changed its plans before it invested untold sums of money in a system that only SANRAL and its sponsors are convinced is the best option.
SANRAL should have made sure that its vehicle database was complete and accurate and that people who weren’t passing through gantries weren’t charged. It should have developed an effective system of communicating etolls charges to consumers that gave them enough time to pay discounted fees and, instead of issuing threats to hand consumers over to debt collectors for not paying on time, should have sent more constructive reminders before sending in the heavies.
SANRAL has been heavy handed, aggressive and evasive throughout. Had it been transparent and reasonable it would still have had opposition but not on the scale we have seen. Instead, SANRAL now sits with around R1 billion of unpaid etolls fees and the public seems to have no intention of simply complying. What a mess and SANRAL only has itself (and its advisors) to blame.
If anyone had asked me for an alternative to etolls I would have suggested something along these lines:
- Instead of building a massive and costly system to charge motorists based on actual traffic through gantries, SANRAL should have opted for a small fuel levy charged for all fuel sold in Gauteng. It would capture virtually all motorists driving in Gauteng and the charge could have been small enough to make very little difference when apportioned across all these motorists.
- To encourage people to take public transport, taxi drivers and bus drivers could have been issued with something like a discount card which they could present at petrol stations and which would, effectively, reverse the additional fuel levy on their purchases. The provincial government could have used this incentive as a means to vet roadworthy taxis in the process.
- The additional funds could have been paid to SANRAL to fund its initiatives without the massive costs of building the etolls system; fighting in court and the public’s distrust and disobedience.
- This option would obviate a whole administration to manage the etolls collection process and any undue benefits which followed the constructive of this infrastructure. It would also keep all that money in the province where it is needed to, well, maintain our roads and pave new ones.
But that would just be me and my suggestions which are not dependent on secrecy and successfully distorting reality to the point where SANRAL is beyond reproach and criticism simply because it is, well, SANRAL.