We shall never surrender

“We shall not flag or fail. We shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength … we shall fight in the fields and in the streets … we shall never surrender.” So said Sir Winston Churchill in June 1940. And so said the people of South Africa in April 2012.

The people have spoken. Actually, they grouped together and shouted. They huffed and they puffed, and they blew SANRAL’s e-toll gantries down. Well, I wish that was literal, but the figurative isn’t too far off.

SANRAL CEO Nazir Alli handed in his resignation on Tuesday, May 8, just over a week after the North Gauteng High Court interdict to halt the introduction of e-tolling in Gauteng was granted on Saturday, April 26. After holding the position since the agency’s inception 14 years ago, one can only imagine this was a direct result of the pressures of the e-tolling fiasco.

I’d love to know if it was internal factors, fear of cardiac arrest or the threat of stoning by people who recognise him on the street that pushed Alli to raise his white flag – or was he asked to? In the days subsequent to his departure, a flood of press releases from interested parties came in, each adding its voice to what was unanimously seen as a small victory. Some were fairly gracious, wishing Alli well. Others less so, saying the organisation (and South Africa) would be better off without his stubborn, dictatorial attitude.

Unfortunately for him, there had to be a bad guy in this war, and being the head of SANRAL – well, who else could it have been? Government wouldn’t have let it be Transport Minister Sibusiso Ndebele or Gauteng Premier Nomvula Mokonyane. Nor former premier Paul Mashatile, who left office in 2009 long after this all began. After all, government has to save face as much as possible.

No question then as to why SANRAL has been at the centre of the debacle, especially when things reached boiling point, with government preferring to “watch” from the sidelines. As I read the release by the Justice Project South Africa (JPSA), I had to wonder if Alli dug his own grave, or if he was just the perfect fall guy?

“We must be careful not to allow the e-tolls issue to be turned into a personal thing about one man, who was admittedly the driving force behind it but certainly not the be all and end all of it,” said Howard Dembovsky, JPSA national chairman. “We must remain mindful that nothing that he did could have been done without the sanction and support of other parties, not least of which was the Department of Transport and people within its top management.”

Road safety specialist and former FOCUS columnist, Rob Handfield-Jones, added an opinion shared by many who have been following the debacle: “SANRAL’s approach under Alli’s tenure was one of bombastic forcefulness, with little thought given to the average road user. He will be remembered primarily for his arrogance in the face of huge public opposition to e-tolling.”

As an interesting aside, Handfield-Jones acknowledged that Alli had “the good grace to resign when his position had clearly become untenable”, saying this is refreshing in an era when those in positions of power are virtually unmovable.

As the voice of the people and the main point of pressure on SANRAL and Alli, the Opposition to Urban Tolling Alliance (OUTA) was curt and to the point in its response, saying it is “still fully committed to its legal challenge and the full court review to halt e-tolling as the funding mechanism for Gauteng’s freeway improvements.”

OUTA has wanted nothing more than to openly and fairly chart a suitable way forward with SANRAL, so this polite “high road” response comes as no surprise. But, much like Churchill, OUTA has a stern “don’t mess with me” character … the kind of character that has the will to win the war whatever it takes.

Alli’s retreat is one battle down, but the war certainly isn’t over.

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