Who would have thought, even a matter of weeks ago, that the issue of toll roads could become a potential political tipping point for members of the governing ANC-led alliance? Or that this issue — among so many confronting the country — could see even the South African Communist Party embroiled in bitter wrangling?
Yet so it is — and no more so than in the Western Cape where, for the first time ever, Cosatu and the ANC find themselves on the same side as the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) in opposing the introduction of road tolls to Cape Town’s two main traffic arteries. Until now it has been almost an article of faith that anything the DA supported, the ANC, backed by Cosatu, opposed and vice-versa.
These attitudes, on both sides of the political divide, are fuelled by what often seems an obsessive conviction that the province and the city of Cape Town must either be won back at all costs from the DA or retained — at similar expense — by the DA. To win back the Western Cape for the ANC is a declared Cosatu priority. The DA, for its part, wishes to increase its electoral hold in the province and to expand its influence, if not control, to other provinces.
But out on the Cape Flats, sandwiched between the sweep of the False and Table bays, the geography of apartheid remains intact alongside the N1 and N2 highways. Here is the cluttered sprawl of the still largely segregated “coloured” and “black” townships with their attendant jumbles of shacks. For people in these areas, the major lifelines to work are the N1 and N2.
It is this reality, that the commuting poor will be the major sufferers should these roads be tolled, that has brought the ANC and Cosatu into the fray alongside the DA. For while the poor — commuting or otherwise — have no real say in these matters, they do have the right, every five years, to cast their ballots: they are the electoral fodder that feeds political ambition.
But to give them their due, both sides of this political divide oppose e-tolling in principle and agree with the tactic of opposing its implementation. However, the over-riding consideration for both is the strategic goal of gaining more votes for either the ANC or DA in the elections next year.
This is why the DA seized on the obvious divisions in the governing alliance to score political points as the 2014 election nears. The DA points out that an ANC government, backed by Cosatu, agreed to e-tolling; that the DA consistently opposed this, especially in the Western Cape. But then, so too, has Cosatu, along with the rest of the trade union movement, opposed e-tolling.
At least in public, union opposition is solid, with the labour federations having all formally supported a notice under section 77 of the Labour Relations Act regarding e-tolling. This section permits “protest action to promote or defend socio-economic interests of workers”.
Summing up the consensus union view, National Council of Trade Unions (Nactu) general secretary, Narious Moloto notes: “We need good, affordable public transport, and not just another tax on our people.” Nactu, along with Cosatu and the Federation of Unions of SA (Fedusa) has so far not backtracked on the question of e-tolling.
However, there are already signs that compromises are being sought and that some unions have considered that, despite their opposition, the e-tolling battle has been lost. “We can’t support it — that would be like asking turkeys to celebrate Christmas — but some of our unions think that it is a done deal and they don’t want to break the law,” says a Fedusa official.
And with e-tolling apparently going ahead despite massive opposition, further protests would almost certainly entail breaking the law. This could be a tipping point for the governing alliance, but only if Cosatu decides to continue resisting.
Which is why, within Cosatu and the ANC, some desperate behind-the-scenes talking is going on in the hope of finding a compromise that would halt protests, but that would probably not satisfy anyone. With elections looming, it is vital for the governing alliance that some deal be struck.
However, this might only apply to Gauteng where e-tolling is almost certainly a fait accompli. This is not the case in the Western Cape with its unlikely anti-tolling alliance.
But the over-riding factor in the N1, N2 battle remains partisan politics: in a drive to win friends and influence voters, the DA attacks its toll road allies; Cosatu responds in like fashion, pledging support for a Cosatu anti-tolling campaign that includes the DA, but “only on condition”.
The condition laid down by Cosatu regional secretary Tony Ehrenreich is extremely broad: the DA provincial government and the DA-controlled Cape Town metro council must “do more about redistributing services to the poor”.
All of this is complicated by the issue of buses. Cape Town is in the process of introducing a rapid transport — MyCiti — bus service based on that pioneered by the city of Curitiba in Brazil and on the same lines as the stalled Johannesburg system. This has come into conflict with Cape Town’s long-established and heavily subsidised Golden Arrow bus company where workers yesterday (subs: Thursday) came out on strike for higher pay.
However, Golden Arrow, currently taking the city of Cape Town to court on the question of compensation because of the MyCiti introduction, is owned by Hoskin Consolidated Investments. And HCI is headed by former Cosatu trade unionists John Copelyn and Marcel Golding. The bus company’s major shareholder is the investment company of the Cosatu-affiliated SA Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union.
In political terms, things don’t get much messier than this. But the strategic political battle will continue, with partisan interests trumping principle while the poor — in whose interests these battles are supposedly being waged — watch, on the sidelines, perhaps becoming increasingly disillusioned with both sides.