South Africa to charge tolls on key highways

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The South African government gave the green light Thursday to a plan to charge tolls on highways around Johannesburg and Pretoria, but caved in to public pressure to cut the rates it had originally set.

The toll road programme was initially approved in 2007 as a means to foot the bill for a massive highway maintenance and expansion project in Gauteng, the country's most populous province and home to some of its most notoriously congested roads.

But plans to recoup the 20 billion rand ($2.8 billion, 1.9 billion euros) spent on the upgrade hit a snag in February when the government published its proposed tolls, setting off a public outcry.

A driver commuting daily between economic hub Johannesburg and capital city Pretoria -- around 60 kilometres (35 miles) -- would have had to pay about 1,000 rand a month starting at the end of June.

The plan drew fierce opposition from transport companies, mini-bus taxi owners and drivers, automobile associations, and chambers of commerce -- as well as some key allies of the ruling African National Congress (ANC), including unions and the ANC's own Youth League.

The government agreed to delay the launch of the tolls -- which will charge drivers automatically, via either licence plate recognition cameras or an electronic "e-tag" system -- and set up a commission to review the programme.

President Jacob Zuma's cabinet said Thursday it had accepted the commission's recommendations to cut the proposed tolls by 15 to 20 percent.

Drivers will now pay 0.40 rand per kilometre for a light car, instead of 0.49 rand.

The government meanwhile dropped plans to toll mini-bus taxis -- the backbone of an improvised public transportation system that the country's poor and working class depend on -- after their umbrella organisation threatened to grind the country to a halt.

The government did not say when the new tolls will take effect.

© 2011 AFP

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