For Finance Minister Tito Mboweni, the e-tolls debate is about policy certainty and the fiscus; for Gauteng premier David Makhura it is about the ANC’s political survival in the province. It is going to be a mammoth task to balance these two competing interests as the government moves to find a lasting solution to the e-tolls impasse.
These issues were at play over the weekend in the unseemly Twitter spat between Mboweni and Makhura, in which President Cyril Ramaphosa intervened and chastised the pair.
Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula, to whom it has fallen to lead the process of resolving the situation, will have to strike a balance between these two competing interests as he tries to come up with an ultimate solution to the e-tolls debacle by the end of August to present to Ramaphosa.
It is a tricky situation — one which a task team led by former deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe could not lay to rest once and for all. Ramaphosa, too, led a team during his tenure as deputy president to resolve the e-tolls question. He announced a “hybrid model” to cut the price of e-tolls for consumers in 2015, but this was not enough to stem the discontent about the system among Gauteng motorists and the electorate.
Even the courts did not venture into the matter — the 2012 Constitutional Court judgment in an application to interdict the system by the Opposition Undoing Tax Abuse was clear that the merits of the debate for and against the system fell squarely within the parameters of the executive.
Mbalula, then, has been assigned a task that two deputy presidents, as well as the courts, could not bring to finality. At the same time, he is well-placed to carry it out: as head of ANC elections he is well aware of the effect of the system on the party’s electoral fortunes in Gauteng.
Mboweni’s frustration is understandable, given that it is his responsibility to ensure the government makes good on its financial commitments. The user-must-pay argument by Mboweni is sound, particularly given the tight fiscal space in which he is operating and the need for bail-outs of critical state-owned entities such as Eskom.
But it is also easy to understand Makhura’s desperation.
With two years before the next local government election and an ANC in Gauteng already on notice, having lost two metros in 2016 and getting a narrow 50% provincial win in 2019, the stakes have never been higher.
The ANC in Gauteng’s research has consistently shown that e-tolls have eroded support among the already overburdened electorate in South Africa’s most economically active province.
Following its 10 percentage point slide in electoral support in the 2014 general elections, the party’s research showed that e-tolls and corruption were the two most salient factors contributing to the decline.
In 2016, the ANC in Gauteng lost Johannesburg, Tshwane and Mogale City. It narrowly held on to Ekurhuleni, but effectively lost the province, as its share of the vote slipped to an all-time low of 46%.
During this period, the ANC in Gauteng resolved that e-tolls should be scrapped, but has been powerless to implement its resolution, because the system is a national government competency.
Ahead of the 2019 elections, guidelines issued to ANC volunteers canvassing for votes indicated that the party should tell voters that it has agreed that tolls in major areas such as Gauteng “are not viable or workable”.
The party committed to finding a “better solution” to funding roads and infrastructure. It is this commitment it is now seeking to deliver on.
In 2019, the ANC’s electoral performance slipped once again — by three percentage points to just 50%. The trend indicates that the ANC could again see an outright loss of the province in the 2021 local elections and the loss of the province for the first time in a general election in 2024.
Losing Gauteng will be a game changer — the ANC will no longer have control of the province contributing the largest chunk towards the country’s gross domestic product. And if a messy coalition government is formed, this could effect governance in the key province.
It is this reality which Mbalula, Mboweni, Makhura and Ramaphosa must grapple with as they move to find a lasting solution to the e-tolls stalemate.