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Who would be Koos Smit, the man selected acting CE at the embattled South African National Roads Agency Limited (Sanral), following the ill-timed, yet understandable, resignation of Nazir Alli. Indeed, who would have liked to be Alli!
There is no question that Smit, like Alli, is more than qualified to run the organisation. He is a civil engineer with more than three decades of roads experience, including being a senior member of the Sanral management team since its 1998 inception. He joined Sanral from the Department of Transport’s (DoT’s) Chief Directorate: Roads, where he was construction and maintenance director from 1996 until the establishment of Sanral. Between 1977 and 1998, Smit occupied various positions within the DoT, including being director of toll roads from 1995 to 1996. He is a professional engineer registered with the Engineering Council of South Africa.
But it is not technical or even managerial competence that will count, given the anger, vitriol, misinformation, politics and legal scrimmages surrounding Sanral and the implementation of the e-toll system on Gauteng’s urban motorways.
To navigate this period will require not only resilience of the highest order, but also soft, even intangible, skills. For instance, communication has to be clear and difficult to contest. Achieving this will be far from easy in light of the polarisation and activism. It is made doubly difficult in the context of the constraints associated with the legal contest. Consultation efforts have to be seen and felt to be genuine and broad-based – equally difficult when it is possible anything offered or uttered may end up prejudicing Sanral in adversarial legal proceedings.
But the real trick to navigating this period has far less to do with Smit and far more to do with the Sanral board and the responsible politicians.
South Africans have a number of recent case studies, from Eskom to the South African Broadcasting Corporation, that highlight the importance of perceived unity between the board, the executive and the responsible Minister.
Had there been any public display of daylight between then Public Enterprises Minister Alec Erwin, then Eskom chairperson Mohammed Valli Moosa and then Eskom CE Jacob Maroga at the height of the 2008 load-shedding crisis, it is quite likely that Eskom would still be lurching from crisis to crisis. True, it has had several challenges since that dark period, including the late 2009 board spat that led to the resignation of then chairperson Bobby Godsell and the eventual unseating of Maroga. But at the zenith of Eskom’s troubles, the presentation of a united front was undoubtedly critical to the utility’s stabilisation and current recovery.
At Sanral, no such united front has even been presented and the perceived, and real, cracks that emerged between the executive and the Minister and the new board and the executive were wide enough to embolden Sanral’s opponents.
Unless these cracks are mended, possibly through the intervention of Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe, Smit and his team (and even Alli’s permanent replacement) will feel as isolated and deflated. That could lead to the worst-case scenario: the exodus of key talent from what has until recently been a top-notch public entity.