Inside the brand Gautengers love to hate

Electronic tolling has been the topic of much debate and controversy since the gantries arose along Gauteng’s skylines eight years ago

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During that time, there were many people who were unsure about its implications and were shocked when they realised it’s another contender for their hard-earned money, engineered by the government they already didn’t trust.

And when the Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project (GFIP) became a stark reality in 2012, most South Africans argued they’d been left in the dark with no voice.

To be at the helm of Electronic Toll Collection (ETC), the face of this controversial project, and on the receiving end of much hate and debate, is a momentous task.

But Coenie Vermaak, the CEO of ETC is a conscientious and consistent leader, determined to inform public opinion in favour of the dreaded e-tolls. He hopes with transparency, honesty, resilience, open communication and conversation, the benefits of this project will be better understood.

Among much contention and negative public opinion, on the eve of South Africa’s next election, Vermaak puts it into context, “The main reason for the e-toll existence was purely economic and by no means meant to mislead the public.”

The GFIP was conceptualised in 1996 by the South African National Roads Agency Limited (SANRAL) to improve much-needed infrastructure and attract more investment to Gauteng.

The province generates nearly 40% of South Africa’s total economic activity and because development has grown significantly, it resulted in exponential traffic growth, thereby overloading the road and freeway capacity.

The government constantly struggles to balance the need for investments in infrastructure with the pressing demand for better social services countrywide. An economic viability study of the GFIP found the user-pay principle could be a solution, where motorists would help pay for the infrastructure as those benefiting most from expanded lanes, smoother traffic flow, less congestion, reduced travel time and less time spent in carbon pollution.

High traffic volumes made conventional toll impractical, so the best way to monitor and control payment was by means of electronic toll technology. At the time, it was the biggest implementation of its kind in the world.

Australia and Chile also provided clear case studies for the success of urban open road tolling, and the project was passed into law by Parliament. The government did not know, however, with how much dissatisfaction the project would be met.

In late 2009, in competition with several other large international consortiums, ETC was successfully awarded the contract to design, build, operate and manage the Gauteng Open Road Tolling (GORT) Phase 1. The contract was extended in April 2017 to run until December 2019.

ETC is currently owned by Kapsch, an international road telematics, information technology and telecommunications company, dedicated to transforming road congestion in South Africa by providing cutting-edge e-tolling collection services and cashless, electronic toll points. Contracted to SANRAL, ETC employs 1 200 people.

One big argument against the project was that tolling revenue would end up in the coffers of a foreign company. “Which is totally inaccurate,” says Vermaak.

“To date, Kapsch has not made any profit on the project. Toll revenue is allocated to maintenance and future improvements, and the repayment of the debt incurred for the construction,” he says.

The Opposition to Urban Tolling Alliance (OUTA) launched initiatives to hinder e-tolling’s implementation and said the public was never consulted. However, the Constitutional and High Courts ruled there was public participation.

“But maybe not enough. In 2009, people were not nearly as engaged as they are today, and probably did not pay attention. If the communication process was better, people may have felt more respected and acknowledged,” Vermaak says.

Many argued that the project could have been funded through other tax-based revenues such as the fuel levy. But this is limited and part of the countrywide fiscus pool.

National Treasury already funds around 84% of a non-tolled portfolio and allocates funds to other social needs in education, health, social grants and housing. The government thus considered it to be unfair to use nationally raised taxes to build one road in one province.

In the first six months since the e-tolls opened in 2011/2, the overdue toll fees already accrued to R1 billion. Vermaak was initially against e-tolls but ETC revised his opinion and gained his full support on the project. At first it was out of necessity but he quickly realised it’s a remarkable system.

“Developed and engineered with the assistance of NASA engineers, the road system provides South Africa with one of the most advanced technological urban transportation infrastructures with the largest single-instance Oracle database in the world,” he says.

The e-toll issue has become a resounding drum, giving rhythm to political campaigns wanting to scrap it completely and serving as a whip in the hand of the public rebelling against government corruption.

Vermaak warns, “The problem is multidimensional and merely scrapping e-tolls could impact South Africa very negatively as the government would have to settle a very large bill.

“There would be no income, which will breach certain governances within SANRAL’s agreements with the lenders and the R22.5-billion, which subsequently became R40 billion, will become payable immediately.”

“There’s no way out. The only way is to consider alternatives and figure out better solutions, one of which may be privatisation. We have to understand that as South Africans, we have to collectively invest in infrastructure to remain competitive on a global scale and attract investment,” he explains.

Besides the building along the N1 close to Samrand off-ramp in Centurion, ETC has a wide provincial footprint with 37 satellite centres and kiosks in shopping centres geared towards customer services, dealing with complaints and assisting the public to become compliant.

In addition, ETC has staff maintaining gantries, working in workshop yards and policing vehicles monitoring the freeways. Of the entire workforce, 68% are women. Skills development is constant, as the business needs to stay on track with the latest technology paramount to its operations. “So far, we’ve spent more than R30 million in training and development,” Vermaak says.

It takes courage, energy and stamina to show leadership in an environment where negative public sentiment against the system is a daily encounter. “It’s even more difficult to inform a biased public of the deeper lying ethical principles and why e-toll compliance is important for future generations,” he adds.

Disappointments are plentiful but Vermaak says, “Resilience is the key to our success and helps us stay on course in line with our strategic alignment Map, called the Gameplan.”

The Gameplan is a clear, ambitious strategy in which 96% of the company participated in developing. This buy-in ensures alignment as “teams need to be coherent, cohesive and function as one operating unit—one collective genius”.

“When teams share the same values, behaviours and beliefs, there’s very little that can stop you. When negative news breaks or political sentiment swings, or when we’re confronted during family gatherings around the fire, we remain focused on this plan,” he says.

Vermaak is a Civil Engineer who started his career at Basil Read in 1996, then moved to Murray & Roberts. He was in charge of the Medupi Power Plant negotiations team at Eskom and once the tender was secured, he helped to build it.

He later joined ETC with no knowledge of IT, but he clearly understood SANRAL’s culture and thinking, having worked with them for many years. Vermaak goes to work every day with a solid step in the Gameplan strategy—entering the offices at 5:30am and only leaving it around 7:00pm—motivated by the thought that over 1 200 families depend on him for their livelihood and survival.

“Which means, I have a constant internal battle on having to do what’s right. I’m on a crusade to tell the story right,” he says.

Constant communication, building relationships and fostering trust are the biggest components to creating win-win solutions, says Vermaak. He wants to give the public another, more positive perspective than the negative one OUTA shares.

“People need to be trusted with the truth. They respond amazingly well when you demonstrate trust and when you communicate truthfully and honestly,” says Vermaak.

And the truth is, “SANRAL had raised the money to expand the Gauteng freeway network, and this money has to be paid back.”

Vermaak is not afraid to challenge poor behaviour and will, respectfully, while considering all approaches to historical depth and payment options, take firm steps to enforce the law as “currently, only 30% of motorists are paying e-tolls”.

In any other country, electronic tolling is a legal requirement and any delinquency in this regard is met with consequences. Discussions between SANRAL and the Ministers of Finance and Transport led by Cyril Ramaphosa is advancing, and a number of options are under consideration.This information may also be shared with vehicle dealers, finance houses and auto companies.

“But this is a negative approach in getting people to comply. We rather want people to take responsibility and come on board with a changed mindset and of their own free will.

“Granted, historically, the GFIP was very poorly communicated and the taxpayer was not being respected. If we could turn back the clock, the e-tolls issue would have been tackled with far greater public engagement.

“But since its inception, the public became fully aware, and we are constantly driving educational campaigns, costing ETC thousands. And yet, still no feasible or workable suggestions are being communicated to us, apart from backlashing and revolting against the government. If anyone has a better solution to e-tolls, please bring it.

“Even if we shut down the system, even if we starve it, we will end up paying for it. If not, we will dump a very serious problem upon future generations, adversely affecting our own children’s welfare and prosperity,” Vermaak explains.

With logical reasoning, anyone would realise motorists already derived much benefit from the open toll roads during the past eight years. But this cannot continue without paying for the privilege.

Statistics show that Gauteng faces large-scale urbanisation pressure, as around 547 new people arrive in the province every day.

Around 133 000 vehicles enter and leave the GORT network each hour during peak periods. With an average of 1.2 people per vehicle, the network carries almost two-million-person trips a day.

SANRAL noted in online media that the GORT system is close to capacity with the traffic demand and travel time predicted to continue to increase. Since 2014, annually, the traffic volume roughly increases by 4.7%.

Of course, nobody likes to pay tolls. But roads provide access to economic opportunities, which, in turn, leads to sustainable economic growth. There’s no other way but to keep on investing in road infrastructure.

“Our intent is pure. If we can align thoughts, I truly believe we can crack the code on this and constructively work together for a better future,” concludes Vermaak.

Bravery means learning to graze on your own, then later leading the herd. Coenie Vermaak allowed himself to understand e-tolls—a system he was previously passive about. Now, he forges ahead with a clear game plan. If he is not trying to find solutions, he is building a winning team or trying to sway public opinion. He’s a stalwart whose fearless leadership skills aid him in the office or when facing intricate surveillance and public scrutiny. 

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