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E-tolls referendum is a good idea

While the ANC is strongly opposed to a referendum on e-tolling, it would be the most efficient way of putting this contentious issue to bed.

Read time 5min 40sec

As Gauteng motorists wait with bated breath to hear their fate in regard to e-tolling in the province, it is perhaps strange the provincial government is vociferously against the notion of holding a referendum to gauge the public's opinion on the controversial system.

The idea of holding a referendum to settle the issue once and for all was initially pitched by the Democratic Alliance (DA), when it became obvious e-tolls would remain, despite an eight-month review process by a panel appointed by Gauteng premier David Makhura.

When Makhura appointed the panel in June last year, many e-toll opponents were confident the system would be scrapped. This was especially in light of the fact that the ANC in Gauteng felt it had lost support in the province during the 2014 general elections.

While the review panel eventually released its findings at the end of last year, e-toll opponents - most of whom had been advocating for the use of the fuel levy as a funding mechanism - were left largely disappointed by the panel's report.

While admitting, in its current form, e-tolling has to be reviewed, as it is "unaffordable and inequitable, and places a disproportionate burden on low and middle income households", the panel stopped short of recommending the system be scrapped.

On the contrary, the panel recommended a hybrid funding model be adopted, which would include a contribution by motorists, as well as additional sources of revenue, such as contributions from government.

Decision time

Whatever the final iteration of e-tolling will be, the ultimate decision is expected to be taken when the intergovernmental team, led by deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa, concludes its work. According to Makhura, the provincial government was working with Ramaphosa "to develop a better dispensation which will mitigate the negative impact of the e-tolls on the people of Gauteng, especially the middle and lower income groups".

The final verdict was expected at the end of last month, but I suppose we can expect delays, especially considering Ramaphosa is heavily involved in trying to figure out what to do with ailing power utility Eskom.

Meanwhile, e-toll opponents have been increasingly vocal about putting e-tolling to a vote, as criticism has been levelled at the review panel's findings, especially in terms of its determination that most parties agreed Gauteng residents are happy to pay for infrastructure development and maintenance.

While this may be true, Gauteng residents have also been clear about their rejection of the user-pay principle, which the ANC is determined to keep - albeit in the form of some yet-to-be-defined "hybrid" model.

In addition, organisations opposed to e-tolling have also been critical of the review panel's findings in view of government's stubborn determination to try and keep the system in place, even if partially so, to fund the bonds of the freeway upgrade.

Unfortunately, [a referendum] seems to be a no-go area as far the ANC is concerned.

The Opposition to Urban Tolling Alliance described the proposal of a reduced or partial funding of the debt through the use of e-tolls as merely exacerbating the problem by pushing up the collection costs as a percentage of the revenue generated, making the plan more irrational.

Similarly, the Justice Project SA has said it is clear a "hybrid model" of funding for the current GFIP seeks to retain e-tolling as a prominent component. This, said the organisation, is despite its gross inefficiencies and enormous unpopularity among the citizens of Gauteng.

Yay or nay?

Well, then the solution should really be simple. Government is happy that most Gauteng residents are willing to pay for infrastructure. On the other hand, e-toll opponents are not happy with the review panel's findings and recommendations. So, let's put this issue to bed and hold a referendum. This would - once and for all - give Gauteng residents a voice and allow them to say "yes" or "no" to e-tolling.

Unfortunately, this seems to be a no-go area as far as the ANC is concerned. Speaking in the provincial legislature earlier this month, Makhura emphatically stated: "A referendum is used to resolve stalemates. It is not used to resolve every other public concern or disagreement."

Similarly, Paul Mashatile, chairman of the ANC in Gauteng, this week lambasted those who have called for a referendum on e-tolling, in an opinion piece published by The Star newspaper. He described calls for a referendum as "nothing but knee-jerk nonsense", and went on to argue that "it is not wise to govern a province with the political and economic relevance of Gauteng purely on the basis of referendums".

I would agree with Makhura and Mashatile that Gauteng - or any other province - should not be run on the basis of referendums. But, then again, would an e-toll referendum really mean each and every decision taken by the provincial government is subjected to a public vote? Hardly. In fact, when last was a referendum held by Gauteng, regarding anything?

So, while we can agree that not everything should be the subject of a referendum, it would also be nice if we could agree this issue perhaps warrants being put to the vote.

As for Mashatile's claims that the calls for a referendum are nothing but knee-jerk nonsense, the same could be argued about the entire e-tolling system. It is an open secret by now that the necessity for e-tolling came about due to the ANC's failure to maintain and upgrade Gauteng's transport infrastructure, on an annual basis, since 1994. While this was budgeted for in the province's annual infrastructure allocations, the money was never spent.

However, with the hosting of the 2010 World Cup, the necessity to upgrade the province's roads became urgent, and what should have been done gradually, over a number of years, had to be achieved virtually overnight. Sounds like a whole lot of knee-jerk nonsense to me.

And as for the ANC's real fear of an e-tolls referendum - I expect it would, once and for all, scupper the party's efforts to squeeze a square peg into a round hole.

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