ANC MPs made a dramatic about-turn this week, caving in to pressure from members of the executive and withdrawing a bold proposal to give Parliament more say in the determination of road toll fees.
The ANC rescinded its own proposed amendment to the Transport Laws and Related Matter Amendment Bill [e-tolls Bill] on Tuesday, which, if adopted, would have obliged Transport Minister Ben Martins to seek parliamentary approval in setting toll prices. Currently, the minister has sole authority to do so.
The Bill was passed on Wednesday without any new amendments to the version that was passed by the National Assembly in March. The move takes the South African National Roads Agency Limited (Sanral) a step closer to ensuring that it can start tolling Gauteng highways next month.
ANC sources who did not want to be named said that Martins was unhappy about the proposed amendment and in meetings held with ANC members who sit in the National Council of Provinces (NCOP) committee, as well as through the transport department's legal advisors, he demanded that it be withdrawn.
Another source claimed that the minister's concern was that the NCOP would deal with the pricing issue, which he currently has sole authority to determine, and that such a process could lead to delays in implementing e-tolling.
The minister's spokesperson, Tiyani Rikhotso, denied that the department's legal advisers had met ANC members of the committee.
Rikhotso said that Martins, as an ANC MP, sat in meetings of the caucus and ANC study group every week. He said Martins was aware of and respected the processes of Parliament and therefore would always abide by the outcome of the deliberations of the NCOP, but could not comment on ongoing discussions at the NCOP.
The Bill was scheduled to be passed on May 14, but the debate and vote was suddenly postponed with no reasons given. This week, the NCOP committee was reconvened to reconsider the Bill. Committee chairperson Pat Sibande, of the ANC, said it had to reconvene so that it could deal with a complaint from the Democratic Alliance.
The DA had written a letter of complaint to NCOP chairperson Mninwa Mahlangu about "unacceptable procedures of the previous committee meeting". The party wanted the committee to consider holding extensive public hearings in all nine provinces before the Bill was debated and passed. But the DA claimed not enough time had been allocated to its complaint on Tuesday before it was dismissed by ANC MPs.
The committee instead started going through the Bill clause by clause, which gave ANC MPs an opportunity to rescind the contentious amendment without giving any reasons for doing so. Later, ANC MP Mbuyiselo Patrick Jacobs, who proposed the rescindment, said the decision came "after consultation with National Assembly members".
This week, ANC sources further claimed that Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe, in his role as leader of government business, had written to Mahlangu requesting that the Bill be fast-tracked by the NCOP.
Motlanthe also chairs a committee appointed by the Cabinet last year to co-ordinate work on the Gauteng freeway improvement project.
Last week, Raseriti Tau, a member of the committee processing the Bill, went to great lengths to explain why the amendment was necessary. Tau said the version of the Bill passed by the National Assembly stated that before the transport minister made any regulation, he must submit a draft of the proposed regulation to Parliament for "comment". The committee replaced the word "comment" with "consideration".
"We felt that this provision was too weak and not in line with Section 102 of the Constitution, which clearly empowers Parliament to consider regulations and not just comment," he said. The motivation for the change was that "consideration" would allow MPs not only to comment, but possibly also to propose changes to the regulations, he said.
Tau confirmed that the committee would consider the determination of toll fees. "Those are issues that we will look at … whether the government as a whole has done its best in applying its mind on how the law will affect our people," he said.
But Tau was not present at this week's meeting where the proposed amendment was rescinded.