Government's court bid to stop the legal challenge against e-tolling is set to intensify as it meets with the main opponents to the troubled system.
The Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project (GFIP) interministerial committee will meet on Thursday at the Union Buildings with the Opposition to Urban Tolling Alliance (Outa) – the group awarded a court interdict in late April, halting the implementation of the system pending a full judicial review.
“We will be meeting with Outa and we will be listening in the same way we have been listening to all other people we have met with,” said Thabo Masebe, spokesperson for deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe – who heads the task team.
The meeting is the latest in a series of interactions with various stakeholders, as the task team aims to bring a speedy resolution to the impasse that has resulted in ratings agencies expressing concern the standoff could affect South Africa’s international credit rating.
“This is quite encouraging. We have been talking and hopefully this will be the catalyst which will see the end to this bun fight,” Outa chairperson Wayne Duvenage told the Mail & Guardian.
However, despite the negotiations, the government is currently challenging the interdict ruling in the Constitutional Court.
In court papers, Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan warned of a “dark economic future”, should government policies like e-tolling be continuously challenged in the courts.
He further warned that other government programmes in the health and education sectors would be severely affected if the system is not implemented.
When quizzed as to why government was negotiating with interested parties while still legally challenging the court interdict, Masebe said the two approaches are inherently different.
“That is a separate matter and the courts will deal with the legal issues. We are only interested in listening to ideas and suggestions that will bring an end to this confrontation,” Masebe said.
Masebe added that the task team was looking at alternative models of funding the GFIP.
Outa said it will “fight tooth and nail” in court should it be forced to do so.
“We can’t be led into a conversation where we drop our challenge only to have the rug pulled out from under us.
“We will continue to beat the anti-etolling drum for as long as the system is on the table as an option,” Duvenage said.
Duvenage said that while the public response to the court challenge has been “overwhelming”, the body is struggling to fund its legal battle.
“People thought once we got the court interdict it was all over – the true fight begins now,” he said.
Outa said it is R6-million short of the purported R10-million needed to pay for their court challenge, which they say would’ve been unnecessary had government originally consulted with the public on implementing the system.
“These conversations should have been had six years ago. If we spoke about this then, we wouldn’t be sitting in the precarious situation we find ourselves in now,” Duvenage said.
But Masebe says otherwise.
“People will always have controversial views criticising government saying we didn’t do enough. According to my knowledge there were consultations. The fact of the matter is that we need to find each other and decide on a way forward in this matter,” Masebe said.
While the interactions between the task team and relevant stakeholders have been described as “fruitful” and “amicable” by government, their actual effectiveness in advancing a solution to the confrontation is yet to be tested.
The impact of newly appointed Transport Minister Ben Martins is also yet to be felt, after he replaced Sbu Ndebele, who was moved to Correctional Services.
It has been widely interpreted that Ndebele was pushed out due to his “ineffectiveness” in handling the e-tolling matter.
“Minister Martins is certain matters can be resolved if stakeholders are engaged and ideas are shared between government and all parties involved,” Tiyani Rikhotso, communications director for the department of transport told the M&G.
Another variable yet to be factored into the debate is the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu).
South Africa’s largest labour federation is vehemently opposed to e-tolling and in March threatened to barricade highways if the system went ahead, but the ministerial task team has not engaged with Cosatu.
This was after Cosatu, a member of the tripartite alliance, directly negotiated with the ANC to have etolling delayed by a month.
In response, Motlanthe, told a media briefing on e-tolling, that the apparent deal between the ruling party and Cosatu was “just a suggestion”.
Cosatu also said government was “wasting money” by challenging the interdict.
“Its reckless to say the ANC has nothing to do with government. We’ve been meeting with the ANC regularly on the matter and we will continue to do so as we are steadfast in our opposition to the system,” Cosatu spokesperson Patrick Craven told the M&G.