Renewed calls for e-tolls corruption probe

Martin Czernowalow
By Martin Czernowalow, Contributor.
Johannesburg, 03 Sept 2014
It is illogical that a clean operation would be as secretive as Sanral, say critics.
It is illogical that a clean operation would be as secretive as Sanral, say critics.

While one of e-tolling's most outspoken critics has called for an independent investigation into the construction costs of the Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project (GFIP), another staunch opponent of the system says it is unlikely the information will ever see the light of day.

Presenting yesterday before the e-tolls review panel, Outa chairperson Wayne Duvenage urged that a commission of inquiry be established to look into the inflation of the GFIP costs.

The 15-member review panel was appointed by Gauteng premier David Makhura to probe the socio-economic impact of the GFIP and the e-tolling system put in place to fund it. The panel should present its findings at the end of November.

Outa is one of several parties opposed to the e-tolling system that has called for a funding model switch to pay back the freeway improvement project costs, specifically calling for a move to the fuel levy as the source of funds.

Last week, a presentation by the Consulting Engineers South Africa (Cesa), in favour of e-tolling in its current format, sparked renewed accusations of collusion between the South African National Roads Agency (Sanral) and the engineering fraternity. Cesa represents more than 500 consulting engineering firms, and admitted some of them were contracted by the GFIP.

So far, Cesa has been the only interested party to come out in support of e-tolling and to argue against the fuel levy funding option.

Cesa's stance drew the ire of Outa and the Justice Project South Africa (JPSA), which dismissed its arguments as factually flawed, with both anti-e-tolls lobby groups voicing concern that the engineering body's view is symptomatic of the close relationship between many local engineering firms and Sanral.

"Sanral and the engineering fraternity have a close relationship," said Duvenage, adding Outa has repeatedly approached the Engineering Council of South Africa to unpack the costs of freeway construction in Gauteng, but has to date not received a satisfactory response.

Proof of collusion

In a written submission that accompanied its oral presentation to the review panel yesterday, Outa says "the initial capital cost of the GFIP in 2006 was estimated to R6.4 billion, but over the five-year life of the project, increased almost three-fold to around R18 billion for the road upgrade itself, excluding an additional R2 billion or so for the e-tolling infrastructure and other incidentals".

"In February 2013, the Competition Commission exposed the collusive practices of the construction cartel, which impacted negatively on the price the state (and therefore the public) has paid for the GFIP construction costs."

The Competition Tribunal confirmed on 22 and 23 July 2013 various consent orders relating to tender collusion cartels in the construction industry, enabling Sanral to pursue possible claims against the persons or organisations involved in such cartels and who had admitted to tender collusion for work commissioned by Sanral, says Outa.

But the organisation says that, to date - a year after receiving confirmation and approval to proceed with action against the collusive practices - there is still no sign of Sanral's plan to retrieve the construction overcharges, which Outa believes to be several billion rand. The alliance says it has also not received much explanation from the Sanral board in regard to this matter.

In its submission, Outa says it believes "Sanral is too close to the problem and that an independent enquiry is needed to investigate the extent of the over-charging, with a view to set in motion a process to recover the monies".

No info forthcoming

JPSA chairperson Howard Dembovsky says the situation at Sanral should be called what it really is - corruption ? adding that "collusion" sounds a lot better than what it really is.

While Dembovsky is in favour of getting to the bottom of the situation, he warns it is unlikely the full extent of the construction-related corruption would ever see the light of day.

"Nobody is capable of looking into Sanral. The Kremlin would be easier to penetrate. Sanral simply won't hand over the information. Cosatu has tried, the DA has tried - they ended up with reams of blacked out paper."

Dembovsky says it is unlikely that a project would come in at almost four times its original budget, if all was above board. "We tried to ask Sanral way back at the start why this is costing us so much per running kilometre and we were told that we wouldn't understand.

"It is not typical of a clean operation to be so vociferous about keeping information hidden and so pig-headed about pushing through this project at all costs. It's irrational and defies all logic. It needs to be probed deeper."

Meanwhile, Sanral has seemingly dodged the review panel and any public discussion about e-tolling, saying it would not make a presentation.

Sanral spokesperson Vusi Mona this morning said the agency had already conducted a socio-economic impact assessment at the start of the project and the report was handed to Parliament. "People can go look at it if they want," he added.

Dembovsky says Sanral's attitude clearly shows it was not willing to make a presentation and answer questions before the panel. "Especially not in front of journalists."