242 | This year we fight for the soul of critical transport decisions—not promises

UNLOADING ON THE STREETS

The courage to push us forward in the transport sector fell beneath our feet last year. To face the pandemic, we needed a dual focus: one on the need for economic efficiencies derived from transport; and another on redressing policy inequalities that perpetuate the transport disadvantage in our communities. 

Instead, we had haphazard frames of responses from a ministry that has been questioned for the manner in which it appointed the administrator at the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa; the conduct of the office with respect to the Department it leads; and the pursuit of keeping promises that have gathered dust between the wheels of minibus taxis. 

Where promises and decisions overlap

So many promises made, but very few decisions were taken. I look at the eTolls saga not as an attack on the user pay principle, but an attempt to conflate dissatisfaction with procurement processes with the ambitions of the Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project. As a result, non-compliance becomes an expensive project in and of itself, left unchecked it eats the allocation risk alive. Basically, taking the politics so far that nothing gets done, and the long-lingering limbo justifies the notion that the infrastructure project was not viable in the first place. 

Whereas, it is the user pay principle which keeps the Gautrain alive, and ambitious enough to expand into to townships and complement Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa. It is the same principle that keeps the Airports Company South Africa (ACSA) alive as airlines and other users pay for the use of the infrastructure, and this finances its development efforts and strategic position. 

But the promise was to resolve this issue, and hear an announcement early this year as to what the decision is. Under this fiscal debt-bubble, the decision should not deteriorate the principle, especially when financing infrastructure through users is much more bankable than borrowing entirely. 

The promise was to fix PRASA with an already existing War Room, then an “unlawfully” appointedAdministrator, and now a new executive team and board—yet the situation became much worse. Simply because resolving the past issues at PRASA require litigious effort, while steering its future requires operational excellence. 

The same operational excellence would have ensured that state assets were secure prior to rescinding security contracts; meanwhile pursuing the legal and investigative actions necessary to hold history to account. Severe passenger volume declines, and over 70% dip in revenue toward October 2020 were recorded. Whereas internationally, rail lines with competitive players are operational, chasing passengers and trying to recoup their financial position. From apartheid, we inherited an expensive and expansive enabler of spatial segregation, when will competition shake the rust off commuter rail along our townships? 

The promise was to subsidise the minibus taxi industry, within the existing political-administrative-and-commercial conglomerate of the South African National Taxi Council (SANTACO). What started as an urgent gratuity of R1.35bn, to say “thank you” for carrying passengers at 70% capacity at the height of the National Lockdown, turned into an opportunity for engagement and reform through the National Taxi Lekgotla. This is a conversation with an industry that has dominated passenger public transport throughout the current form of democracy’s existence. 

Thus, the conversation around a new public transport subsidy that is inclusive of the minibus taxi industry was on the table in 2019 already, and a the policy was set to reach cabinet by end of 2020. But this conversation dates back to the days when the Fiscal Financial Commission had an interest in the topic too, and as far back as 2007’s public transport strategy. While the minibus taxi industry is genuinely far from perfect, these are not new conversations either, and talk without action erodes confidence in the state’s capability. 

A simple case here is where the municipal budgets allocated R1.146bn specifically for “physical pandemic relief measures” at public transport facilities—and I asked whether municipalities have the capacity to roll that capital out in the first place. But more importantly, how was this channelled to the public transport facilities all over the country (not just the cities)? Who is monitoring this? Or have we harboured disappointment?

So here we are, starting the year, with the public transport subsidy loose-end; an ambiguous R1.35bn gratuity that would have been distributed the South African Revenue Services (SARS) to eligible operators; and a peculiar lack of accountability in the provision of sanitisation paraphernalia in public transport facilities. 

Policy certainty is an asset 

With all the media coverage, demonstrations and public appearances from the office of the Minister, this year could test the extent to which the letter from staff at the Department of Transport had merit. Remember, the staffers claimed that he was more focused on publicity than concerted action. 

Especially with regard to eTolls, PRASA and the minibus taxi industry—neither of which are easily manoeuvrable, and could take years to resolve under normal circumstances. Even under normal circumstances, we do not see such lapses in policy judgement in aviation—the Civil Aviation Authority, airlines, airports and navigation are always on their toes taking responsibility. 

Hence an independent, vocal and competent Single Transport Economic Regulator (STER) is the one market gear the DoT and the Portfolio Committee need to unleash. Now, when the worst and most challenging times are upon us, is the time to activate a fully functional STER.

As the COVID induced recession plagues our economy and an underlying recession persists insidiously, redressing transport disadvantage in this country will get people moving with dignity! Fine. The current circumstances are abnormal. They require urgency. 

For the lowest income households, job seekers, essential workers, recently retrenched, youth and entrepreneurs who need to get around at pace—how will they do that a year from now? Five years from now? Or will directions change depending on elections?

Cities and towns need a stable access and mobility foundation upon which the recovery of industries can leverage on. People moving affordably, safely, securely and efficiently. 

In a crisis promises give hope, but decisions secure certainty. Certainty around critical transport issues brings the type of confidence to rebuild after the first round with a virus and the tenth with an ailing economy. What we need is for our people to get up in the morning without a doubt in their transport options. 


Thank you for reading! This article was originally published on Fin24.

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