It is disappointing that courts are not very familiar with issues around access to information, the Right2Know (R2K) Campaign said. File photo: David Ritchie

It seems that, after the Gauteng shambles, Sanral has decided on a strategic approach of doubling down in the bunker, writes Mike Wills.

Cape Town - Whatever happens, the lawyers always win. It is staggering how much political contestation ends up in the courts and our judges must have grown weary of listening to expensive advocacy funded by taxpayers, often on both sides of the same case, around issues of government. I know I’m fed up with paying for it all.

The latest costly legal squabble is around Sanral’s tolling plans for the Western Cape. The roads agency wants to keep some fundamental details of its economic model for upgrading both the N1 and the N2 confidential and the provincial government is dragging it through the Western Cape High Court to force disclosure.

Sanral claims, through its combative spokesman Vusi Mona (anyone remember the 2003/4 Hefer commission which arose from wildly inaccurate reports run by City Press under Mona’s editorship?) that this secrecy is necessary to protect the integrity of its tender processes.

Cue gales of hollow laughter across the nation as the words “integrity” and “tenders” don’t often appear together.

It seems that, after the Gauteng shambles, Sanral has decided on a strategic approach of doubling down in the bunker. The executives must have taken the view that they’re about as popular as leprosy anyway so they might as well raise the middle finger to Cape motorists and administrations and plough right on with their grandiose plans.

There is also a political conspiracy view that national government has written off the Cape electorally and doesn’t care how upset anyone gets with them here.

This is an immensely damaging approach by Sanral because there is a reasonable case to be made (albeit one that will never be popular) for the user-pays principle in general and in tolling, at the very least, the substandard N1 from Worcester for about 100km northwards to upgrade that vital economic artery while making the heavy trucks which rumble along it day and night pay their share of the cost.

Whatever Sanral’s reasons for keeping its modelling data confidential, it’s patent nonsense to expect the provincial government, the affected municipalities and local motorists to buy into this project without knowing roughly what the toll fees will cost and how they will be applied into the future.

If revealing that kind of detail compromises tender processes, then Sanral must start those processes again because, without a thorough public disclosure programme, this could be a legal quagmire for decades.

One very important point in this context, raised by Peter Hugo of the Cape Chamber of Commerce, is that the Huguenot Tunnel was opened in 1988 and has been paid off many times over by toll fees, yet it remains a toll route seemingly as a cash cow to cross-subsidise other Sanral projects which means it is no longer a case of “user-pays”.

I have some sympathy for Sanral because road issues are always a tough sell with NIMBY’s ever rampant and, in this instance, the DA has played heavily into an emotive political gap without adequately addressing the serious fiscal consequences of the complete collapse of the tolling project across the country which they seem to be seeking.

It’s also curious that Sanral is the lightning rod for so much public outrage when it has been one of our most effective parastatals and has delivered a pretty impressive national road system – far superior, for instance, to the crumbling American network.

So Sanral actually has a good story to tell, and tolling does have a role to play in our infrastructure development, but the organisation needs to learn some lessons from the Gauteng debacle and become far more transparent and responsive.

* Mike Wills’ column Open Mike appears in the Cape Argus every Wednesday.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

Cape Argus