When unionists and politicians contradict themselves

Phumla WilliamsAs the debate on tolling continues, one has come to realise that both the Democratic Alliance and Cosatu share the same basic ideological flaw – at least on road infrastructure financing.

And while I doubt I am the only South African to have this simple insight, it cannot hurt in these ideologically confusing times to reiterate a moderate perspective. Who knows? Maybe if people on the ideological extremes see that both share the same contradictions and disposition to the road financing policies of the government of the day, they will realise that they are not so different after all.

Then – please allow me to continue indulging in this fantasy – there may be hope of moving beyond rhetoric and partisan bickering and get on with the business of forming alliances.

In July 2006, the then Transport MEC in the Western Cape Marius Fransman announced that Trevor Manuel, who was in charge of the country’s finances, had approved an extra fuel levy of between 10c and 50c a litre for the Western Cape.

Fransman had noble intentions – to use the fuel levy for the upgrading of the province’s transport infrastructure and developing a high quality public transport system.

The day after the announcement, the Cape Times carried an article titled “DA slams fuel levy plan for the Western Cape.” It quoted the DA’s then provincial transport spokesperson, Robin Carlisle, saying the province’s agricultural export and tourism sectors would be hit hard by the planned fuel levy.

Carlisle said: “Farmers are already competing on a global level and their current profit margins are slender. The price increases have made diesel fuel the most inflationary expense in agriculture, [and] for many farmers it is becoming the biggest expense as well. The fuel levy will strike a devastating blow to primary producers and wipe out a significant number, which will aggravate our high unemployment rate.”

Apart from the reference to unemployment, Carlisle was mainly betting for the farming and tourism business sectors and relatively quiet about the poor. Taking up the cudgels for the poor, who ironically would be the main beneficiaries of an improved public transport system, was Cosatu. Its regional secretary, Tony Ehrenreich, was reported in the same article as saying the greatest burden of the levy would be borne by the poor.

Ehrenreich said: “This tax will increase the cost of taxi and bus transport and have an inflationary impact on food prices. Cosatu will be taking action to oppose this harsh tax on workers.”

The introduction of the article had said both the DA and Cosatu had “come out with guns blazing” against the proposed provincial fuel levy.

Now for the contradictions – with the same guns blazing! It is 2013 and the DA is vociferously calling for the fuel levy to fund the Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project (GFIP). But wait a minute, Jack Bloom. Carlisle in 2006 said this kind of levy would be burdensome on farmers and tourism operators?

Are those consequences now inconsequential or has the DA undergone a Damascus experience on the fuel levy and forgotten to announce this profound experience to the voting public?

Ditto Cosatu. In 2006 it was against an additional fuel levy in the Western Cape. In June 2012, Cosatu said it was proposing a 14c a litre on the fuel levy to fund the GFIP. Again, Cosatu echoed the sentiments of its odd bedfellow when in its statement on the 2013/14 Budget it called for the increase in the fuel levy to be allocated to the GFIP.

Ehrenreich’s warnings on the dire consequences of an increased fuel levy on the poor have either been forgotten or Cosatu has undergone a similar Damascus experience as the DA.

Cosatu and the DA can somersault and go through various conversions on the fuel levy. The DA in particular, whose transport policy posted on their website shows it embraces tolling, can talk one language today and another tomorrow. But that’s a hard act to follow for a government that has not been struck by any lightning to induce a Damascus experience.

So, what shall we make of these contradictions and terrifyingly ever-changing positions on the fuel levy? Well, unionists and opposition parties who have never run a national government have often been remarkably confident that they know when a government or its agencies are badly run. And indeed there are government agencies that are badly run.

But assertions like “the fuel levy can pay for our entire roads infrastructure” can pass unchallenged among unionists and opposition parties with the prevailing vision being substitutes for evidence or analysis. The fuel levy can pay for some and not the entire road infrastructure – unless we were to double or quadruple it.

The ease with which the DA and Cosatu changed their positions on the fuel levy and their views on road funding reminds one of what Lenin once said about running a business. He said it involved “extraordinarily simple operations” which “any literate person can perform”.

Three years after taking power, with his post-capitalist economy facing what Lenin himself later called “ruin, starvation and devastation”, he reviewed his position and declared to the 1920 Communist Party Congress: “Opinions on corporate management are all too frequently imbued with a spirit of sheer ignorance, an anti-expert spirit.”

Without causing the DA an ideological indigestion with Lenin examples (Cosatu can stomach these), one hopes we never say the same in the future about the management of our national roads. South Africa’s road infrastructure and economy cannot afford experiments that will lead to “ruin, starvation and devastation”.

The South African National Roads Agency Limited has done a good job in managing the national road network. The politicisation of its mandate is dangerous.

*Vusi Mona is the head of communications at SANRAL. Edited versions of this article first appeared in The Star and Pretoria News


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