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30 November 2015 04:20 (South Africa)
South Africa

HANNIBAL ELECTOR: The e-tolls are bigger than your election. Much bigger.

  • Richard Poplak
  • South Africa

E-tolling was supposed to be the issue that brought the ANC to its knees in Gauteng, thereby ushering in a new era of coalition governance that would change the balance of power in this country forever. Has the hated road supertax changed the election, or has it merely changed the country forever? RICHARD POPLAK speaks to Wayne Duvenage and John Clarke of Outa, to gauge their thoughts on how all of this is unfolding - and finds out that it’s about much, much more than all that.

The history of madness is the history of power.

Roy Porter—A Social History of Madness

First, a fairytale:

A group of children in Pondoland, South Africa, are desperate to go to school, but their elders insist that they must guard the mealie fields from a troop of monkeys. These creatures are most effectively kept away by the barking of a pack of dogs—dogs that are, it must be said, unhappy with the rigidity of this arrangement, and regularly run off into the fields. If the children can only figure out how to keep the dogs focused on the task at hand, then they (the kids, that is) will be able to go to school, and later become stockbrokers in New York City.

After much talk, the children devise a solution. They rope a bowl to the trees above the leashed dogs and fill the bowl with meat drippings. Through small perforations in the bowl’s base, the drippings travel to the tongues of the hungry curs below. For several hours each day, the dogs feed happily and duly bark at the chastised monkeys. Meanwhile, the children attend their classes, become educated, and go on to do blow in Wall Street bathrooms after graduating from Harvard cum laude.

Ah, the wiliness of the African child! He is our Paul Bunyan-esque hero, who inhabits the stories we tell of life in our dwindling wilderness, forever devising solutions to seemingly intractable problems. These children inhabit a fakeloric universe that is no less real for not existing. In a place where people have forgotten how to fight, they remind us that every problem comes with an embedded, ingenious solution.

Every fairytale, every fable, is about power relationships, and the Pondoland meat-dripping caper is no exception. It is told to me at a Tashas in Bryanston, by Wayne Duvenage and John G. Clarke, who respectively serve as CEO and spokesperson of the Opposition to Urban Tolling Alliance, or Outa. Both men have come to see power not as an abstract concept, but as a corporeal entity that sheds purple light on highways. For Duvenage and Clarke, power is represented by Gauteng’s e-toll gantries, and they have founded one of the most significant civil society groups to emerge from South Africa since 1994 in order to rip those gantries down.

Technically speaking, Outa is committed to ending the e-tolling system that came into effect in Gauteng last December. Metaphysically speaking, they’re perforating the gravy bowl in order to keep the mealie fields from being raided. In a country that has outsourced its outrage to the comment sections of websites, or to the occasional flaming tire on roads that no one travels, Outa reminds us that there is something that we can do, that we are not powerless, and that 1994 was the beginning of the conversation and not the final word.

And so a new fable takes shape: Duvenage, the CEO of a Big Company, quits his comfortable career in order to cobble together an alliance that will battle a manifestly unjust government project that impacts the lives not just of every last soul in Gauteng but, according to information recently leaked by a whistleblower, of every last person in the country. That e-tolling was a) imposed from above without consultation, b) ridiculously misconceived c) a bullet in the brain of the poor and those on the cusp of becoming so, and d) potentially unlawful, made it a corollary for just about every botched money-sucking scheme the South African government has implemented over the last 20 years.

Spearheading the e-toll system is the CEO of South African National Roads Agency (Sanral), a gentleman named Nazir Alli. The quintessential ANC hack, Alli is both quisling and king, the perfect avatar for the sorts of men and women who rule over this land—officious, unresponsive and unjust. Slap a black helmet and a voice-box on him, and he’s telling you that he’s your father.

“I believe,” John Clarke will later tell me, “that Alli exhibits 14 out of 14 elements of Lord David Owen’s hubris syndrome. It’s an acquired personality disorder caused by proximity to power—think Cecil John Rhodes or George W. Bush or Tony Blair. Those who display these symptoms never work alone. They work in a context.”

Alli’s context is the patronage system of which Sanral plays an integral part: the feeding of cash into a governance system in which money is no longer the means, but the end.

* * *

Because it imagines power, madness is both impotence and omnipotence. It requires power to control it.

Roy Porter—A Social History of Madness

Short of writing a new fairytale, has Outa changed anything? Has the e-toll nightmare turned into a political fantasy, one in which we reassemble the power structures built so meticulously over the past two decades? When I ask this of Wayne Duvenage, who sits backlit against the morning sun streaming into a mall parking lot, he says, “We’re not playing politics, but that horse is running. All the parties have made their statements [regarding e-tolls]. Subconsciously, people have made up their decisions in the back of their minds. I don’t know why the politicians aren’t beating a bigger drum, but I’m sure they have their reasons.”

Mostly, their reasons are Nkandla, and also, Nkandla. And while the President’s gilded palace will, I believe, turn out to be one of this country’s historical flashpoints, it cannot be decoupled from its misbegotten tolling twin in Gauteng. Both Nkandla and e-tolls form the parentheses in which most South Africans live, apart from the grammar of governance, as an aside to the country’s bigger point. In this, Duvenage and Clarke’s Pondoland fable has a much larger subtext, because Pondoland is where their story started. And Pondoland won.

In 2004, Sanral began advertising in the newspapers a R10-billion mega-project called the N2 Wild Coast Toll Road, a 75km shortcut that was a taxpayer-funded gift to the mining industry, and a road to nowhere for everyone else. There was no public consultation and the company that performed the environmental impact assessment was in bed with the Wild Coast Toll Road consortium, which made the whole thing illegal anyway, to say nothing of stupid. There was enough extant local infrastructure awaiting repair that it was clear to anyone with a brain that the Wild Coast Toll Road was a 10-billion rand bank heist. Alli, in comments he made to John Clarke at the time, interpreted Toll Road opposition as—what else?—a racial thing: white folks didn’t want the views from their beach houses ruined, while black folks, he insisted, were clamouring for development, and especially for another toll road they couldn’t afford to use. Yet traditional amaMpondo leaders were threatening to dig up the weapons they buried following the uprisings of the 1960s and use them to place Alli’s head on a stick. And who could blame them?

Certainly not John Clarke and Wayne Duvenage, who met for the first time as the fight ratcheted up. Clarke is a writer, journalist, and devout Roman Catholic environmentalist; Duvenage was running the car rental giant Avis. Judged by their biographies alone, they would appear to be on different sides of any argument, but both men are curious, bright and, most importantly, pragmatic. They met at an event in the Wilderness Leadership School in 2006, where Duvenage first heard the story of the children and the mealies and the monkeys. The Avis CEO was charmed and offered the Toll Road opposition movement a vehicle for their efforts. And through a broad, consensus-based, wildly disparate coalition, both men contributed to the Toll Road’s eventual takedown. A lesson was learned: Sanral could be beaten.

It was a good thing to know in the face of the looming e-toll initiative that, in early 2011, threatened to ring-fence Gauteng with bleeping gantries that would significantly increase the cost of transportation. As it stood, Gauteng residents had never seen the mechanics of the Apartheid labour system dismantled—poorer blacks still lived on the outskirts of the city and had to buy their way in via costly and dangerous mini-bus taxis, while the luckier few could drive or car pool. No real public transportation programmes had been put into place, and the tolls would make driving, and eventually food and other essentials, much more expensive. Surely the government would kill this madness. Surely it would not pass muster.

And yet it did, and gloriously so.

When it became clear that Sanral and the national government were not going to back down on a Gauteng e-toll system, despite a Presidential Commission that stated “social infrastructure, including roads, should rely less on user pays funding mechanisms and more on normal taxation”, Duvenage left Avis for good and started Outa in February 2012. The alliance included a host of other business associations and took money from, among others, the Democratic Alliance, who hoped to claim branding rights. And while this opened Outa to accusations of being a DA shill, the e-toll proposal was so clearly insane that even the taint of Helen Zille hasn’t been enough to stop them. Consensus was a broad church, and the congregation was devout. They were professional, cogent, clear, and clearly not insane. The money they raised was not used to buy management’s BMWs, but for their legal team to buy Bentleys. They were a solution, not another problem.

Outa successfully interdicted a proposed e-toll launch in April 2012, and fought for eighteen months to hold off any further attempts at implementation. Lawsuit followed lawsuit, but on 9 October, 2013, the Outa case was quashed by the Supreme Court of Appeal on a technicality. Like so many Frankenstein’s monsters, the gantries gasped to life two months later.

“People say to us, ‘Guys, sorry for your loss’,” Duvenage tells me. “But the tolling issue isn’t over. All of the issues we predicted have come to the fore. Compliance is running below what Sanral expected by this point—about 38 percent of motorists are tagged. They’re just collecting money to pay for the collection process—in three months they’ve collected about R238 million, a third of what they need to break even. We told them this would happen.”

More than that, Duvenage and Clarke understand e-tolls as the beginning of the beginning of a social movement, an inadvertent mass campaign that has the buy-in of millions. “All these people are passing under those gantries and saying to the government ‘get stuffed’,” says Duvenage.

Every time an e-tag doesn’t beep, implies Duvenage, a Gauteng resident perforates another hole in the gravy bowl. And drives further and further from representatives that fail to represent.

* * *

Threatening the normal structures of authority, insanity is engaged in an endless dialogue—a monomaniacal monologue sometimes—about power. Roy Porter—A Social History of Madness

Under Duvenage and Clarke, Outa is not just an umbrella group trying to stop an unjust supertax that makes sense for no one, not even the organisation trying to implement it.

It’s about pushing back the mudslide of madness that has always accompanied power in this country, the relentless drive by leaders, from the first days of the Cape Colony until now, to steal everything they can and then hide behind the walls of their fortresses.

“How democratic is this system?” asks Clarke. “This is a huge problem for South African democracy. This has all been totally disrespectful of the democratic process, and we need to use e-tolls in order to have a conversation about becoming a mature democracy. Personally, from the beginning, my conscience was stirred by this.”

For Clarke, e-tolls are not merely a secular concern. The whole situation comes down to the nature of what it is to be in a society: millions of individuals tied to each other by common purpose, by common necessity, by common faith in the social project, which is meant to uplift everyone. “Our constitution does not give enough emphasis to subsidiarity,” he says. “Local destiny is not being decided locally,” but by enormous corporations beholden to the stakeholders and bond buyers and ratings agencies that actually define Sanral policy. “When Zuma signed the e-toll bill into law, the Gauteng leadership were shocked. They finally understood that he was ordered to do so by investors, those neo-liberal capitalists out there.” Clarke waves his hands at the imaginary guys and gals who keep the lights on at Sanral, who are presumably out there somewhere, beyond the plate-glass window, lurking.

“We need a reweaving of the social fabric,” Clarke continues, “in a way that leads to resilience, where money plays its roll as a servant, and technology plays a role as a servant.”

E-tolls, says Clarke, are where the weaving begins, even if the process starts with an unknotting, and the slow slide away from a government that refuses to be responsive to the needs of its citizens.

“The key concept is that hubris syndrome is a disorder of the possession of power, particularly power which has been associated with overwhelming success, held for a period of years and with minimal constraint on the leader”, wrote Lord David Owen, in a paper for the periodical Brain: A Journey of Neurology. Our new journey begins with the acknowledgement that our leaders have become insane, and it is our moral duty to rescue them from what is, according to Owen, a curable malady.

It is therefore our social obligation, our spiritual obligation, to resist in order to become resilient. We begin by saying, “Fuck you, Zuma” every time we pass under a gantry. We end by paying for our much-needed infrastructure in a way that makes sense to all (or most) sectors of this massively striated society, and by being consulted, like adults, by those who we elect to represent our interests.

In this, e-tolls are more than an election issue. They’re the beginning of a war against power, which is really just a war against madness. Like the characters in every fairytale and fable, South Africans are learning that power relationships are mutable.

Perhaps we are also learning that institutions like Outa are our future, because no successful county has ever rolled over before its leaders. Wayne Duvenage and John Clarke remind us that we can have our mealies, and we can have our education, while the dogs get the drippings, and the thieves get nothing at all. DM

Photo: Rush hour traffic is congested as people rush to get home on the N1 highway in Johannesburg, South Africa, 04 December 2013. The newly implemented E-Toll toll system that came into effect on 03 December 2013 has been received with huge protest by the majority of road users in the Johannesburg and Pretoria area. EPA/KIM LUDBROOK

  • Richard Poplak
  • South Africa

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