Sanral CEO Nazir Alli's resignation was not a case of falling on his sword, but rather due to frustration with government's panic over e-tolling.
According to insiders, Alli was displeased with being cast as a scapegoat amid government equivocation and cross-purpose politicking over e-tolling.
On Tuesday the South African National Roads Agency (Sanral) announced that it had accepted Alli’s resignation as its chief executive.
Alli stepped down a week after Judge Bill Prinsloo ruled in favour of an interdict to temporarily halt the implementation of e-tolling.
The agency did not comment further on the reasons for the technocrat’s resignation, who has been vilified for his role in implementing e-tolling on sections of the province’s national highways, but the immediate reaction to his resignation was mixed, with some citing his aggressive and dictatorial style and poor communication skills as reasons of why he had to go.
However, according to insiders, Alli was not pushed: he left of his own accord, and his resignation was not an acceptance of responsibility for any wrongdoing, unethical behaviour or financial fall-out from the e-tolling interdict, but had more to do with Alli’s frustration at political interference and lack of government support.
‘We are devastated’
While some, including the Congress of South African Trade Unions, have characterised Alli as an arrogant bully intent on pushing forward with e-tolling in the face of public opposition, his colleagues described him as a highly technical person who was ethical to the core.
“We are all devastated by his resignation,” said a co-worker, who asked not to be named.
Insiders say Alli, who has steered the country’s roads agency since its inception 14 years ago and been integral to the development of the country’s top-notch national roads network, resigned over his growing frustration with the way the e-tolling situation was handled by government and civil society.
Construction business strategist Richard Saxby, who has been involved in a number of major tolling projects over the past 30 years, questioned the reasons why the public had seized on Alli as the flashpoint for its anger over the tolling.
“He can be an abrasive man,” he said. “But you have to ask, why are you cross with him? Is it because he’s abrasive or because he’s done something terrible?”
Writing in the Business Day newspaper on Monday, Alli pointed out that Sanral had achieved clean audits for a number of years and defended the “consistent integrity in the way Sanral has been managed”. He said the agency would welcome investigations by a commission of inquiry, or an authority such as the public protector or auditor general.
He said he had consistently maintained that as an implementing agency, Sanral’s mandate was to carry out decisions agreed to by government.
The Gauteng provincial government officially adopted the toll roads strategy in 2000. The idea gained traction while Dullah Omar was transport minister and in 2007 national government declared its intention to change parts of the Gauteng freeways into toll roads.
Saxby said that Alli had become a “sacrificial lamb” and that the public’s complaints about e-tolling would remain once he was gone, along with the problem of how to pay for the province’s improved roads.
A Sanral employee, who has worked closely with Alli, said the CEO’s frustration had been growing over the past few weeks.
“It got to breaking point for him. He was not getting support from anybody who could have [supported him] and I guess there was something that broke the camel’s back. None of us know exactly what it was,” he said.
Ali is said to have had difficult relationships with both Tembakazi Mnyaka, the chairperson of Sanral’s board, and Transport Minister S’bu Ndebele.
Although the transport department on Tuesday commended Alli for his “tireless efforts and contributions” since Sanral’s inception, it has at times been at odds with him.
In March, Ndebele accused Alli of providing the public with selective information and instructed the board to call him to account after he provided Cosatu with documents relating to the Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project (GFIP) in which certain sections had been blacked out.
Sanral said the blacked out information was protected by intellectual property laws and that it could not legally make the information public until it had gone through the correct channels to get consent, an explanation which failed to satisfy some of the parties opposed to e-tolling.
The e-tolling issue has become a political football in the run-up to the ANC’s elective conference in Mangaung later this year, with the ANC and Cosatu ironing out a deal to delay the implementation behind closed doors while the courts deliberated on the matter and the transport department choosing to support their agreement in the face of opposition from the treasury.
At the same time alliance partners the ANC, Cosatu and the South African Communist Party have blamed each other for the e-tolling crisis, amid accusations of individuals and foreign companies benefitting financially from the project.
Alli himself has been unavailable for comment. He is believed to be out of the country at the moment.
Meanwhile, the treasury has told Parliament that Sanral can only afford to limp on for another six months, at best.