Will the South African National Roads Agency Limited get a new boss who is much closer to Transport Minister S'bu Ndebele than Nazir Alli was?
Alli quit the agency this week, apparently because political intervention to stop e-tolling on Gauteng’s freeways had made his position untenable.
At the centre of the speculation is Chris Hlabisa, former head of the KwaZulu-Natal department of transport. According to sources familiar with the discussions about the leadership of Sanral, he is close to Ndebele, who was previously MEC for transport in KwaZulu-Natal and Hlabisa’s immediate political boss.
He recruited Hlabisa to be the head of the rail and road division of the national department in February this year.
Although Ndebele will not make the appointment directly, six of the eight members of the Sanral board, which will make the final decision, are appointed by the minister.
Koos Smit, a member of the agency’s executive management team, was made acting chief executive on Wednesday, but it is not expected that he will be running the show for long.
Hlabisa is described as self-confident and a “people’s person” with an open-door policy.
But a job associated with the contentious e-tolling project will require nerves of steel and political support from the right quarters, particularly on the road to the ANC’s Mangaung elective conference in December. Alli is regarded as the first casualty of this political posturing.
Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe, who is regarded as a contender for the ANC presidency, has been given the politically high-risk task of heading a team that is working on a resolution of the issue. People close to him said that his good relationship with Cosatu secretary general and prominent e-tolling critic Zwelinzima Vavi might help, but also warned that he might have been handed a poisoned chalice.
The billions spent on the project must still be recouped and it would seem that robust political manoeuvring in the run-up to Mangaung has begun.
This became clearer when, two weeks ago, the ANC and Cosatu agreed to postpone e-tolling for a month without consulting Sanral or the treasury.
A source said that Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan and Alli first heard of the decision on April 26 while they were in the Pretoria High Court, where arguments were being made for and against an interdict to postpone e-tolling.
A few days before Alli’s resignation on Tuesday, Motlanthe was announced as the chairperson of the committee to co-ordinate all work involving the Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project, in the light of another month’s postponement and a court interdict.
“The politicians are looking for scapegoats,” said Ian Ollis, the Democratic Alliance’s spokesperson for transport.
“And I don’t think Alli is the first. Someone is going to have to take the rap. It looks as if both Ndebele and [Deputy Minister of Transport Jeremy] Cronin are ducking and blaming a range of people, including Jeff Radebe [the former transport minister].”
The committee would also decide how to deal with communications on the matter, government spokesperson Jimmy Manyi said. It was “not a fact” that he, as Cabinet spokesperson, would be taking over communications on the e-tolls.
Alli’s own choice
Politics could also be a factor behind changes made to Sanral’s board, the most notable being swapping Lot Ndlovu for Tembakazi Mnyaka as the chairperson. Ndlovu was a former Black Management Forum president who publicly called for Manyi, one of President Jacob Zuma’s allies, to step down as president of the forum. Mnyaka, its deputy president, is known to be close to Manyi.
Although the board has reiterated that Alli’s resignation was not of their doing — “This was Mr Alli’s own choice. He was not asked to resign” — it certainly made life difficult for him.
In recent months, Alli was gagged by the board from speaking to journalists, although he had done so freely in the past.
Just days before his resignation, Alli remained adamant that the freeway project was conducted in an upright manner. He submitted a letter to the public protector, Thuli Madonsela, four days before he resigned, requesting that she investigate allegations made against Sanral that there were links between the controversial arms deal and ETC Joint Venture, the company running e-tolling on its behalf.
The allegations were published last week in Business Day, but Alli said Sanral was unaware of any such links and was concerned that unfounded allegations unfairly tainted the agency’s reputation.
“Sanral, with our policy of zero tolerance towards fraud and corruption, cannot idly sit by and ignore such allegations without acting or investigating.”
Under Alli, Sanral had received clean audits from the auditor general since 1995.
Alli told the M&G: “I only led the implementation of government policy to the best of my ability.”
Mnyaka had not responded to questions from the Mail & Guardian by the time of going to print.
The department responds
The chief director of communications for the department of transport, Tiyani Rikhotso, said it was difficult to understand how one could conclude that due processes relating to a government agency could be linked to a political process independent of the state.
“I am not aware of [this] and I have never been informed of intentions to appoint Mr Chris Hlabisa into any position at Sanral [South African National Roads Agency Limited]. The process of recruiting and examining a candidate [for chief executive] is the sole responsibility of the board of directors of Sanral. Once they agree on a suitable candidate among themselves, they then write to the minister [of transport] to request him to table their recommendation before the Cabinet, which takes the final decision.”
He said the minister wanted a skilled “visionary” person at the helm of Sanral, “someone who will work closely with the board to ensure that the agency becomes an agent of change in South Africa”.
Rikhotso said, in line with good governance practices, the department would recruit, select and recommend suitable candidates to the Cabinet. “This principle was equally and evenly applied when appointing the current board. The current chairperson of the board was appointed to this position because the term of office of the previous chairperson had expired.” — Lisa Steyn