The South African National Roads Agency Limited (Sanral) on Tuesday announced the resignation of its CEO Nazir Alli, less than two weeks after a High Court ruling brought the launch of the Gauteng e-tolling system to a halt.
Chairperson Tembakazi Mnyaka said in a statement that the Sanral board on Monday accepted the resignation. Alli, who has been employed at the roads agency since its inception in 1998, would continue in his post until June 3.
The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and the Democratic Alliance (DA), which both opposed e-tolling, welcomed the resignation. The Opposition to Urban Tolling Alliance (Outa), which took the matter to the courts ahead of its April 30 implementation, acknowledged that the e-tolling debacle might have been a catalyst to Alli’s resignation.
South African Chamber of Commerce and Industry CEO Neren Rau said the resignation was not surprising given the high-level pressure Alli was under, especially following the court ruling on April 28. He reiterated that stakeholder consultation should have been pursued more vigorously. “But we feel Mr Alli did the best he could under the difficult circumstances.”
Rau added that Alli’s resignation would add to Sanral’s challenge in dealing with its debt servicing issues and implementing the e-toll system. “A person who is familiar with the complicated situation would be required to take Alli’s place. It would be best to seek the successor within Sanral or the Department of Transport,” Rau suggested.
The South African Federation of Civil Engineering Contractors (Safcec) expressed disappointment at news of Alli’s planned departure.
Similarly, the South African Road Federation (SARF) said it regretted the resignation of Alli and acknowledged the significant leadership role played by him over 14 years in the development and maintenance of the national road network by Sanral.
SARF said it hoped the development did not "lead to an exodus of this corp of engineers to the private sector, and the national road network descending into the same atrocious state of much of our provincial road network".
"It is to be regretted that Mr Alli’s resignation has been sparked by a fractious public debate over the financing mechanism adopted for the very necessary improvements to the Gauteng freeways since SARF is of the opinion that the responsibility for the financing of roads should reside in the National Treasury and with politicians, not professional roads engineers. Perhaps those who were responsible for developing this debate should have directed their attention to this source and not Sanral, which is an implementation agency of the Department of Transport."
Outa application’s to the North Gauteng High Court led to an interdict that prevented Sanral from moving ahead. However, the ruling followed an earlier deal between the African National Congress (ANC) and Cosatu where it was agreed that the project would be delayed by at least a month.
The alliance stated that it was still committed to its legal challenge and the full court review to halt e-tolling as the funding mechanism for Gauteng’s impending freeway improvements.
“We look forward to working with Sanral to resolve the e-tolling issue, which is still in a state of limbo as the authorities grapple with the complexity of this matter. Ultimately, we need to restore the credibility of Sanral and our country’s ability to raise the necessary finance facilities at the best rates to get our road building-programme back on track,” Outa said in a statement.
The DA stated that Alli managed the construction of an “excellent” road network well, but that he was a poor communicator. “We trust that his successor as Sanral CEO will not only be an excellent manager, but also a good communicator and a principled individual who believes that real public participation is essential before contentious decisions are taken unilaterally,” the opposition party said.
Cosatu national spokesperson Patrick Craven said he hoped Alli’s resignation marked the end of the Gauteng e-tolling project. “We call upon government to heed the call of the people by finding better, alternative ways to pay off Sanral’s debts and to fund future road construction and improvement schemes and announce the end of the disastrous e-tolling project," he said.
“Our public services must be run for the benefit of the public, not the profit of private companies and foreign investors,” Craven added.
However, Justice Project South Africa national chairperson Howard Dembovsky said Alli’s resignation did not spell the “death knell” of the e-tolling issue. “It merely represents the removal of a single hurdle to progress on the resolution of this matter. The roads still need to be paid for, but a better funding model that does not threaten the livelihoods of citizens must be found and it must be found soon.”
Dembovsky said that although Alli had done the “honourable thing” by resigning, the e-toll issue did not revolve around him. “We must remain mindful that nothing he did could have been done without the sanction and support of other parties, not least of which was the Department of Transport and people within its top management,” he said.
Gordon Institute of Business Science competitiveness consultant and communicator Hylton Gudmanz also commended Alli for resigning. “It seems as if Alli acknowledged the poor decision that was made, he took the high road by resigning and making way for a new person to find a solution. Perhaps he realised his mistakes and now wants to own up them,” he told Engineering News Online.
Gudmanz added that the seemingly late involvement of the Transport Minister Sibusiso Ndebele in decisions surrounding the e-toll system raised questions about leadership, as well as about the role that should be played by the political leadership in resolving the matter.
He referred to Cosatu’s statement that the e-toll situation offered an opportunity for civil society and government to unite and find an amicable solution.
“The way forward will be to establish true engagement not just window dressing. Africa currently fosters a culture where democracy empowers the votes, but not the voter. This affects the bottom line of our net growth and something has to be done about it,” Gudmanz said.
Last week, Cabinet appointed a special committee to be chaired by Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe to coordinate work around the Guateng Freeway Improvement Projects (GFIP). The committee would, among other things, move to ensure that Sanral's financial stability was not affected by the e-tolling delay, which Moody’s Investor Services estimated hadalready cost the agency R2.7-billion in lost revenue.
Outa called on the newly established GFIP task team to launch an independent investigation into all contracts and concessions relating to the project’s construction and its subsequent tolling by Sanral.
The DA also asked that Sanral disclose the names of all 33 subcontractors involved in the collection of e-tolls on Gauteng highways. This followed reports about ANC links to companies that would benefit from the e-tolling. The party has also requested Public Protector Thuli Madonsela to investigate the e-toll collection contracts.
Sanral was not willing to comment on the appointment of Alli’s successor, with Mnyaka refusing to be drawn further than the official statement, which read that “further announcements will be made in due course”.
“The immediate focus and priority of the board is to ensure that Sanral continues to perform its essential role in operating and maintaining more than 16 000 km of national roads across South Africa,” the statement said, adding that the board would ensure that Sanral contributes to and cooperates with the deliberations now under way on the future of the Gauteng e-tolling project.
On Alli's successor, Gudmanz argued for a replacement with a passion for uniting the nation. “We need a peacemaker who will go beyond merely filling a Ministerial position and who will correctly bring the parties together,” he said.
But Safcec said it was “extremely concerned” about the impact that the e-tolling saga could have on the future of road infrastructure development in South Africa. “Sanral was a well-managed organ of State under Mr Alli’s management and we trust the new leadership will continue the high standards set by him,” it stated.
Minister Ndebele said Alli would continue to work with Sanral on outstanding critical matters such as the processes related to the GFIP and the investor road shows.
"On behalf of the transport family, we express our sincere gratitude to Mr Alli for his tireless efforts and contribution since the inception of Sanral in 1998. Under his leadership, South Africa developed a road network that can compete with the best in the world," the Minister stated.