Johannesburg - Gauteng motorists can breathe a huge sigh of relief, for now, after the controversial bill governing the enforcement of e-toll tariffs was withdrawn at the last minute on Thursday and put on hold until next year.
With opposition parties preparing to stage a walkout to show their opposition to the bill, ANC deputy chief whip Mamoloko Kubayi proposed at the start of the sitting that a motion which would have allowed it to be debated early be held over instead - effectively putting the debate on the backburner until Parliament resumes next year.
Kubayi said this was because MPs on the transport portfolio committee had proposed amendments to the Transport Laws and Related Matters Amendment Bill.
But Department of Transport spokesman Tiyani Rikhotso said this was merely a “postponement” of the inevitable. “Firstly, I would like to clarify that the bill has not been withdrawn, but postponed. It needs to be noted that the proposed amendments do not necessarily disempower Sanral [SA National Roads Agency Ltd],” said Rikhotso.
The government had been keen to have the legislation passed before the parliamentary recess so it could proceed with implementation of e-tolling, with Sanral reeling from the loss of income.
Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan was forced to give the roads agency a R5.75 billion injection of funds in February after e-tolling was put on hold in the face of fierce opposition from civil society, opposition parties and Cosatu.
Auditor-General Terence Nombembe has highlighted concerns about Sanral’s ability to continue without the income from e-tolling.
“The toll income from the [Gauteng freeway improvement project] is significant to the ability of Sanral to service its current and future obligations,” Nombembe said in the agency’s annual report. “This may cast significant doubt on the entity’s ability to fund its obligations until such time that the tolling… commences,” he added.
The annual report noted that the toll operating loss after finance charges for the past financial year was R2.67bn, up from the roughly R1.3bn loss reported last year.
DA transport spokesman Ian Ollis said opposition pressure had “pressed the ANC to withdraw the bill”.
This comes after accusations by the DA and Cosatu earlier in the week that the ANC was trying to ram the e-toll bill through Parliament without sufficient public consultation. “After a call by DA chief whip Watty Watson, which was supported by other parties, and a threat from the opposition to stage a walkout during the debate, the ANC withdrew the bill this afternoon. This means that the Gauteng e-toll will not be the anticipated lump of coal in Christmas stockings this year,” said Ollis.
He said the transport committee’s deliberations on the bill would now continue in 2013.
The bill can only be considered by Parliament after it opens on February 10 and will then be sent to the National Council of Provinces (NCOP). “The committee agreed to request the NCOP to have public hearings in all provinces which have metro cities where e-tolls could be implemented in future.
“This is indeed a victory for opposition parties and the... public. We will [monitor] the situation to ensure that all proper processes are followed when this bill is considered by Parliament in 2013 and that adequate public participation has taken place through the NCOP,” said Ollis.
He said the DA had not given up in the fight against e-tolling and still believed alternative models could be identified to fund the required infrastructure expansion.
Cope MP Juli Kilian said the decision to walk out during the debate had been taken during a caucus of opposition parties. “We are going to block it as far as possible,” said Kilian.
The Freedom Front Plus also claimed victory, saying it had “blocked” the bill “which would have made the enforcement of e-toll tariffs possible before Christmas”.