E-tolling judgment a victory for SA's democracy

25 June 2013
AFTER the Constitutional Court’s ruling on the e-tolling of the Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project (GFIP), you would have been hard-pressed to find a person in Gauteng who did not have an opinion on it.
 
Those on either side of the e-tolling argument have fought hard to establish their views in the public sphere and used every avenue available in a free democratic society to do so.
 
Through robust public debate and the right to contest decisions in the country’s courts, including the highest court of the land, our constitutional democracy has emerged the victor.
 
In the case of the North Gauteng High Court’s interim interdict restraining the South African National Roads Agency (Sanral) from levying and collecting tolls on Gauteng’s freeways pending a full review, the government had no choice but to appeal the decision.
 
The ruling challenged the foundation of our constitutional democracy, in which the three separate arms of the state — the executive, the judiciary and the legislature — work independently of each other to balance the interests and wellbeing of all South Africans.
 
This principle of the separation of powers between the three arms creates the checks and balances in our democracy and safeguards the freedom and rights of every citizen.
 
At the heart of the constitutional challenge was whether a court has the power to make decisions about the validity of government policy, or how the government generates revenue, its funding mechanisms and the allocation of nationally raised revenue. The Constitutional Court concluded that the high court had not taken into account the interest of the government and the extent to which the interdict would intrude into its exclusive functions and prevent it from properly carrying out its duty.
 
Delivering the judgment, Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke said: "The duty of determining how public resources are to be drawn upon and reordered lies in the heartland of executive function and domain. What is more, absent of any proof of unlawfulness or fraud or corruption, the power and the prerogative to formulate and implement policy on how to finance public projects reside in the exclusive domain of the national executive subject to the budgetary appropriations by Parliament." The judgment upholds the integrity of our judicial system and shows our constitutional democracy at work.
 
Had the government left the high court’s decision unchallenged, this would have created a setting in which the government would have been prevented by a separate arm of the state from carrying out its mandate. The economy would have faced irreparable financial and reputational damage. The delay in implementing e-tolling has already cost the country R2.7bn, 40% of Sanral’s estimated revenue for this year.
 
Moreover, the resulting negative international attention would have affected the country’s credit-worthiness and made it more expensive to raise money on the international markets, possibly leading to the disruption of essential services.
 
The government does not view the judgment as a victory or defeat for either party, but one that assists us in doing our work to advance the country’s development. The GFIP is not just about building roads, it is about investing in the future, growing the economy to make it more attractive for investment and building a better country.
 
Road infrastructure plays a critical role in building our economy and sustaining economic growth by facilitating the movement of goods and services across the country. The GFIP is lowering the cost of motoring in Gauteng and the effect of tolling will be to inject R210bn into the economy over the next 20 years.
 
The government remains convinced about the appropriateness of the GFIP, with the user-pays principle as the most equitable method for motorists to pay only for the section of the road they use.
 
In response to concerns about costs, the government has made concessions of close to R6bn available to support the e-tolling project and minimise the effects on consumers. SA has on many occasions proved to be a nation that thrives and finds solutions to difficult problems. In that spirit, we must continue to work together to find solutions that will work for everyone and advance the country’s development in the process.
 
Vusi Mona is Deputy CEO of Government Communication and Information System, he served in the government's communication task team on the GFIP.