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The whooshing sound of deadlines rushing by…

29 March 2021 Gareth Stokes

As a writer, I pride myself on meeting deadlines; but I am not innocent of one of the world’s costliest follies, procrastination. Defined as “the action of delaying or postponing something”, procrastination affects each of us differently.

Kicking the can down the road

On an individual basis, procrastination sees us squeezing tasks that should have been finalised in stages over a length of time into a few hours. At a country level it holds citizens hostage while the powerful kick-the-can-down the-road on a range of critical issues. One could say that South Africa suffers from a special form of political procrastination. We have become victims of a process by which government and other political decision makers set deadlines, procrastinate until the final hour, sidestep accountability by pushing deadlines to a future date and then repeat the cycle. By following this process, they can claim to have never missed a deadline, or can they? 

Nothing illustrates political procrastination better than government’s decision making around the controversial Gauteng e-tolls project, in progress for more than a decade. The following headlines, courtesy, illustrate the procrastinate, push and repeat cycle just described. Readers should note that these headlines represent the tip of the iceberg insofar dithering around e-tolls, with the indecision stretching many years prior… 

o              Cabinet delays decision on e-tolls till next year, December 2019.

o              Sanral urges government on e-tolls decision, September 2020.

o              Government is currently deliberating the future of e-tolls, October 2020.

o              Sanral extends e-toll collection contract for a further year, December 2020.

o              E-tolls fail to feature in the budget review, February 2021.

o              Government looks set to miss its e-tolls decision deadline, March 2021. 

Consequences of an ill-thought project

The continued thumb-twiddling on the future of this ill-thought project has many consequences. Top among these is the growing mountain of unpaid e-toll debt belonging to the thousands of motorists who have protested the system by not paying their dues. E-tolls, widely criticised as an inefficient means of collecting revenue, has caused untold stress for individuals who are technically breaking the law on a matter of principle. Another concern is that the South African National Roads Agency (Sanral) has limited clarity on its funding model for ongoing maintenance and upgrades to the country’s ailing road infrastructure. And finally, the impasse creates uncertainty among the thousands of employees who occupy jobs ‘conjured up’ to monitor road users and collect their tolls. 

I have listened to countless for-and-against arguments about the e-tolling decision; but remain unconvinced that employing thousands of administrators, renting thousands of square meters of retail space, paying millions for an offshore-based company to run things and building a fancy head office can deliver better collection outcomes than simply ring-fencing a portion of the country’s fuel tax levy. But today’s column is not intended to further the war between the ‘user should pay’ disciples and the ‘burn your e-toll bill’ brigade. Instead, we contend that once government became aware of the level of public resistance to e-tolls they should have acted immediately and decisively to shut the project down. Nobody benefits from allowing a broken system to limp along for eight more years and counting. 

The dithering takes to the skies

Another fantastic example of the cost of political procrastination comes courtesy South African Airways (SAA). I have written about this political white elephant many times in the last few years; but given government’s approach to decision making, expect to cover the story for decades to come. The story should be familiar to all South Africans: Over decades, taxpayers have kept an unprofitable SAA in the sky despite gross mismanagement and ongoing political interference. I have lost count of how much money the airline has sucked in over the years but the total runs into many billions of rand. 

After decades of dithering, government finally realised that SAA was unviable; but instead of pulling the plug on the institution they entered a business rescue process, promising billions more if the airline could be saved. The business rescue practitioners wasted little time in adopting government’s political procrastination process, to such effect that we are 15 months into the process with almost no idea of the airline’s long-term prospects. What is clear, is that the rescue process added more than R200 million in fees to the airline’s 2020 operating expenses. 

Our latest information is that SAA will emerge in a new and sustainable form from April 2021. Government says that it will carry the full cost of restructuring the entity, already totalling R10.5 billion, and has hinted that an as yet unnamed equity partner will inject capital at some future point. But the operating environment facing domestic and international airlines circa 2021 is the worst on record due to pandemic-induced travel restrictions and changes in how the world conducts business. It would therefore appear that we have come full circle, from unprofitable state-owned airline to airline in business rescue to unprofitable state-owned airline. And that provides a suitable excuse for South African taxpayers to unite in a collective WTF moment. 

Procrastination impacts our retirement outcomes too

I have experienced procrastination in the retirement funding environment too, both personally and as a journalist commenting on critical retirement regulations. I am among many South African savers who got off to a late start on the retirement savings journey. It is alarming how easy it is to defer such an important decision during one’s early working years. Nowadays I preach the retirement industry gospel of saving 15% or so of your gross annual income, starting as early as possible. Procrastination is a decimator of investment value accumulation because it strips away the benefit of compound interest and time in the market. 

National Treasury, meanwhile, has struggled to implement certain retirement reforms due to resistance from trade unions, among other factors. Their reluctance to hastily implement annuitisation, which eventually happened after a multi-year delay, could be held up as an example of procrastination under duress. The bottom line is that the sooner the tough decisions are taken and implemented, the sooner the industry will produce the long-term results it is capable of. 

We need to shrug off delaying important decisions until tomorrow, or risk becoming stuck in a perpetual cycle of sub-optimal outcomes and kicking the proverbial can down the road. I end with some telling words by US journalist, Hunter S. Thomson (1937-2005), who wrote: “A man who procrastinates in his choosing will inevitably have his choice made for him by circumstance”. This holds true whether you are an individual delaying saving for retirement, or a minister who refuses to pull the trigger on an already dead project.


Added by ANTOINETTE WINK, 07 Apr 2021
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