E-tolls: Day one of the big switch-on, and the backlash continues
After years of resistance, e-tolling began on Tuesday on highways that have been upgraded by the Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project. The South African National Roads Agency Limited's (Sanral) lawyers were right, the world did not come to an end. But neither has the fight. Despite government's continued assurances that tolling is necessary and above board, anti-tolling activists are as determined as ever to fight the power. By GREG NICOLSON, THAPELO LEKGOWA & BHEKI SIMELANE.
Sanral boss Nazir Alli and Transport Minister Dipuo Peters defended the system on Tuesday. Both followed the tune of the recent public relations campaign, using figures to defend critics, who they call myth makers, and citing the court judgments allowing tolling to proceed. Their key points are that 83% of drivers will only be charged R100 a month and only 0.6% of users will reach the maximum cap of R450 a month.
"We are very disappointed that some of our citizens and leaders, including those who have in the past styled themselves as champions of the rule of the law, will not this time around accept the rule of the law," said Peters. “It is very unfortunate that when people complain about the cost of e-tolls, they do not look at the benefits.” Gauteng Transport MEC Ismail Vadi said his team was happy with how the start of tolling has progressed, with no hiccups reported.
The ANC urged South Africans to support Gauteng's e-tolls in unlocking the economic potential of the country and the region. “The justness, constitutionality and appropriateness of the funding model has been tested, deliberated upon and defended on a number of public platforms including amongst them our respected courts, the multiparty legislatures and many public hearings. E-tolling has undergone and passed the thorough and rigorous tests of justice and constitutionality,” said spokesperson Jackson Mthembu in a statement. He acknowledged the anger e-tolls have caused, citing tax burdens and the lack of public transport options as key grievances.
Mthembu said the government had introduced the Bus Rapid Transit system and Gautrain to help improve public transport and the toll fees have been significantly discounted to reduce costs. “While accepting the limitations and opportunities presented by the e-tolling project, the African National Congress encourages motorists to support the long-term vision of world-class infrastructure that critically contributes to moving our country and continent forward.”
But there is still overwhelming public anger against e-tolls. The chief critic, in both public statements and action, is Opposition to Urban Tolling Alliance head Wayne Duvenage. “What's happened is government have decided to ignore the views of society and its critics,” he said on Tuesday. “Now they have to deal with the unintended consequences, the backlash.”
He is still adamant that in an environment where people are unwilling to adhere to laws they don't believe in e-tolls cannot work. People will refuse to pay; they will use fake number plates or cover their number plates and try to block the tolling scanners. It might take six months or a year, but eventually Sanral will have to come to its senses, he said.
Duvenage rubbishes the official figures on the costs of e-tolls and has many questions on the reported uptake. He doesn't trust the statement that around 800,000 e-tags have been sold, nor the argument that only 0.6% of road users will spend R450 a month. He points out that if we follow Sanral's argument then under 40% of all highway users have been tagged (there are around 2.5 million people who use the highways with a reported one million who use them regularly). That falls far short of the 90% compliance rate needed for an e-tolling system and the amount of people who pay tolls will become exponentially less, he says.
Duvenage says the legality of tolling still needs to be tested in courts and will be when transgressors face the justice system. That means the public participation process and whether the Sanral considered all options and government had all the information it needed to make a decision will be tested in court, perhaps in many cases or perhaps in a declaratory ruling.
Cosatu held a press conference on Tuesday to announce its continued opposition. It declared the day “Black Tuesday” for the negative effects e-tolls will have on the working class. The federation of trade unions said it plans to mount demonstrations in 2014 including sit-ins, hunger strikes, highway protests and civil disobedience discouraging registering for e-tags.
“The ANC, as the ruling Party, will regret the effect and impact of the e-tolls, as it will reduce its majority of voters in the province as a result of this e-tolling. Many loyal supporters of the movement will not go to the polls due to this unjustified and unfair system,” said Cosatu's statement on Tuesday. “We hence once more make an appeal to them to engage with us to find the most sustainable solution to this fiasco. We believe that there is still time to intervene and scrap this unjustified system in the province before it is too late.”
Photo: Cellphone image of Cosatu Gauteng secretary Dumisani Dakile addressing the media on Tuesday, 3 December 2013 on their next step in their battle against e-tolls.
Reverend Moss Ntlha, the chairperson of the South African Christian Leaders Initiative and one of the church leaders who condemned e-tolls on Monday and demanded that government listen to the people, remained critical. He said that if we stop holding government to account there's little separating South Africa from turning into a dictatorship.
“If we become cynical about our democracy and stop protesting and trying to salvage the last of what we won in 1994, we will lose a lot,” said Ntlha on Tuesday. “Our view is that the system will not work if sufficient South Africans do not obey it. It will just collapse.” He said not all churches are taking a stand against e-tolls but he encourages members of the opposing churches not to support the system. “I personally will not be buying an e-tag nor paying for e-tolls. If they send me the bill via mail, I will patiently wait for the next one to follow,” said Ntlha.
The Democratic Alliance (DA) is waiting for its court case to argue that the e-toll bill was incorrectly tagged in Parliament. The party's candidate for Gauteng premier and its national spokesperson Mmusi Maimane said on Tuesday, “I'm only waiting for them to deliver [the invoice for e-tolls] to me first but I'm not encouraging anyone to bend the rules. Sanral should also be able to prove that they can deliver efficiently to all the three million people.” Maimane launched an anti-tolling banner on Tuesday to be flown across affected communities. “In relation to what this means to our country, we'll have to wait and see what happens in the long run,” he later said on the phone.
The DA's Gauteng legislature leader, Jack Bloom, said he is yet to drive under a gantry but is interested in seeing what comes in the mail. He does not have an e-tag nor does he intend to get one. “The system is going to be tested, hence the majority of South Africans have not bought e-tags. Sanral is not geared up for this. Today thousands of motorists drove on the highway without e-tags. What happens tomorrow? Everyone is interested in seeing the results of defying the system.”
The South African Chamber of Commerce and Industry had been reported to be supporting the e-toll system with Sanral welcoming the backing of big business. The organisation later clarified its stance, saying it opposes e-tolling because of the burden it will have on the economy but encourages businesses to abide by the law. Chief operations officer Peggie Drodskie said on Tuesday she hadn’t heard much from her members yet since the beginning of e-tolling but “business generally is strictly opposed to e-tolling”.
Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) Gauteng secretary, Andrew Mosane, said his organisation supports Cosatu's fight against e-tolls. It's also part of Awethu!, the collection of influential civil society organisations aiming to have a bigger collective voice in SA politics, which Mosane said decided not to support e-tolls in Gauteng. The TAC is concerned that e-tolls will harm access to health services. Meanwhile, the Justice Project South Africa called Sanral “arrogant and evasive” in its response to requests for clarification that legal action will result from not paying toll fees. Sanral's lawyers told Justice Project that the requested information is publicly available and it should get clarification from the media if it saw the issue reported in the news.
When Daily Maverick drove through the tolls on Tuesday the roads seemed reasonably free from congestion. The clouds set in for an afternoon storm, accentuating the feeling that the struggle against e-tolls might have succumbed to fatigue. But we saw very few e-tags in the cars passing under the gantries. For the anti-tolling activists, one phase of the battle might be over, but the war will be won according to how many people comply. DM
Photo: Cars drive under a road toll in Johannesburg December 2, 2013. South Africa's government launched a widely unpopular road toll around the economic hub of Johannesburg on Tuesday, a move likely to heighten tensions with its union allies and alienate some voters in the run-up to next year's elections. The electronic levies, known as e-tolls, have fuelled public anger and strained relations between President Jacob Zuma's African National Congress (ANC) and COSATU, the labour federation that has supported the ruling party since the end of apartheid in 1994. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko