Transport Minister Sibusiso Ndebele. Photo: Bongiwe Mchunu

Transport Minister Sbu Ndebele has bowed to public pressure and suspended the toll tariffs.

But this doesn’t mean motorists will not pay for the use of Gauteng’s toll roads.

Rather, over the next four months, a task team with representatives from the Department of Transport, SA National Roads Agency Ltd (Sanral) and Gauteng provincial government will be set up to review the toll tariff structure, “with a view to explore various options in order to reduce the impact of the cost on road users”.

Public comment on the cost structure, financial model and other options will be sought.

Just more than two weeks ago, Sanral announced that in June it would cost motorists up to 66c/km to pass through 42 electronic toll gates erected on the N1, N3, N12, N17, R21 and R24. The tolls cover a distance of about 185km.

Ndebele raised the ire of readers of The Star when he endorsed the tariffs, saying commuters who did not want to pay could use public transport instead.

The Star has been inundated with reader comments on the proposed tariffs, and its effect on their pockets and freedom of movement.

In her state of the province speech this week, Gauteng Premier Nomvula Mokonyane said she had not been consulted on the tariffs and vowed to take up the fight.

Ndebele and Mokonyane met yesterday, after which the two announced the suspension of the tariffs.

The Star understands that at the meeting, Mokonyane and MEC for transport Ismail Vadi informed Ndebele about the province’s lack of readiness to implement tolls at the proposed fee.

The two apparently raised concerns about the state of public transport, prompting Ndebele to commit to looking into “various short-term improvements in public transport and to take necessary remedial actions”.

In a statement after the meeting, Ndebele said: “South Africans have voiced their views on the tolling of the Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project over the past weeks. We have been listening to these views and decided to further engage on this matter.”

In addition, Ndebele claimed to have learnt about the tolling fee through the media, saying Sanral was an autonomous body with its own board members.

“I was not responsible for the fee - Sanral was,” the minister said.

He said his only role was to intervene when there was a crisis such as the tariff fee complaints.

Ndebele said the country was still duty-bound to pay back Sanral’s R20-billion loan.

“We will be engaging with the investors to keep them in the loop and assure them that we remain fully committed to the repayment of the loan,” Ndebele said.

“South Africans can rest assured that the government is doing everything possible to resolve this matter in a manner that will be in the best interest of the commuter, the road user, and the state for the future development and management of our road infrastructure in the country,” Ndebele said.

Organisations that have opposed the idea of tolls in Gauteng are happy with the minister’s decision, but are sceptical that the high tolling fees will go away.

Gary Ronald, from the Automobile Association, said all Ndebele was doing was “pausing for tea and cake”.

“This isn’t going to go away. In fact, this is just the beginning.”

Ronald said he felt the decision was made partly because this is an election year and “these guys know they have to get things right, or it could go horribly wrong”.

He said he felt the minister made the decision for two reasons - the very public debate between Ndebele and Mokonyane, and the the voice of civil society.

“The AA has just started a petition on its website calling for the tolls to be scrapped completely. In one day it has 3 500 signatures.

“The petition is asking the government to use the levy charged on fuel to go directly into fixing our roads, that the cost of the Gauteng Improvement Project be made known and the tender process for the project be explained.

“We believe tolling should always be considered a last option,” Ronald said, adding that about R25bn was made a year on fuel tax, which would pay for the project in just one year.

Thami Bolani, from the National Consumer Forum, said he had had a feeling that the minister would “make a bold decision”.

He said everyone who opposed the tolls was vindicated yesterday. “This shows there was no proper public discussion on the tolls, and in a democracy you must always consult the people. This is one big lesson the government must learn from this.”

The DA’s Neil Campbell thought the minister’s decision was “great”, but was also concerned he would change his mind again when the municipal elections were over.

“I think the minister stepped down from his lofty, arrogant perch today and decided to listen to the people.”

Campbell said he thought the ministry had underestimated what people’s opinions would be on the tolling.

“They thought we would just sit back, listen to him and pay,” he said. - The Star