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30 July 2014 00:45 (South Africa)
Opinionista Wayne Duvenage

When will the public's rejection of e-tolls be heard?

  • Wayne Duvenage
It’s not going to be that hard to destabilise the entire e-tolls programme. The key is non-compliance by the public. The problem is that this will come with a host of complications – all of which could be avoided if SANRAL just listened to its critics in the first place.

There are none so deaf as those who will not hear. This rings loud and true for SANRAL and government, as they simply ignore the crescendo of public rejection of e-tolls and soldier on with implementation plans. 

As with the bold calls from Jimmy Manyi in 2011 – you know, “e-tolls are here to stay, finished and klaar” – so again the voice of authority, this time from Minister Collins Chabane, was defiant of public opinion last week. He stated that it was not tolling but rather the tariffs that were still under consideration, and that government department fleets would now begin the tagging process with SANRAL.

Over the past six weeks, the public engagement sessions and written submissions to the department of transport, along with Cosatu’s marches and drive-slow sessions, have clearly expressed a resounding outcry against SANRAL’s e-toll plans. Yet government’s response has been a resounding silence.  

In the meantime, the public waits with bated breath for the outcome of OUTA’s high court review, which is expected to receive judgment in the next several weeks. And while we wait, many wonder what may unfold from the possible scenarios of the court ruling. 

I, too, have pondered the variables. There are a number of real possibilities and developments for each possible judgment outcome.

SCENARIO 1

Should the High Court rule against SANRAL (setting the current e-toll decision aside), we can probably expect the following:

Government will more than likely appeal this judgment and try to move this rapidly back to the Constitutional Court, where they feel the last judgment in their favour could assist them with a win.  

Whilst an appeal is in place, technically they will be allowed to proceed with tolling (due to the earlier Constitutional Court ruling which set aside the temporary interdict in September), however, this would be a dangerous move to make, as the high court ruling will heighten the public’s negative sentiment and cause almost full non-participation.   

SANRAL’s credit ratings will probably be negatively impacted, once again.

An appeal will take a few more months to be heard and serious decisions by the authorities will need to be made. Going on past behaviour and the need to save embarrassment, they will more than likely elect to fast-track the appeal process, appropriate more funds to keep the SANRAL creditors and the rating agencies happy, whilst they prepare all-out for a win at the appeal hearing.

In the case of an appeal, OUTA will be hard-pressed with shortage of funds to defend the appeal and will conduct heightened calls and new marketing initiatives to raise a few million to challenge the appeal, while SANRAL remains relaxed in this space, knowing that citizen’s taxes will fund their mounting and colossal legal expenses.

But if the authorities would seriously contemplate the probable outcomes of the short to medium term decision to toll – as envisaged below – the authorities may be wise to call off the e-toll debacle now, disguising this as a policy decision taken at the ruling party’s conference in Mangaung.

SCENARIO 2  

Should the High Court ruling go SANRAL’s way, one can expect the following developments to take place:

SANRAL will press on full steam ahead to launch tolling in mid- to late January 2013.   

Almost immediately after the ruling, they will announce reduced tariffs based on their “assessment” of input from the public consultations and thousands of written submissions during the November engagement process. Here they will begin the charm offensive by emphasising that they “have listened and heard the call from the motorists” and as such, the e-toll tariffs will be reduced by a further 15 or 20%, along with the maximum monthly cap reduced to below R400.  

The charm offensive will be heavily driven and conveyed through press releases, advertisements on radio, print and TV as the government tries to convince the public that eTolls are not that expensive to the “average” motorist and that tagging up is the wise and right thing to do.

Early in January 2013, the SANRAL spin doctors will send out messages that “thousands of e-tags are being taken up”, but in reality, this will be mainly due to government and municipal fleets, banks and leasing companies that will be driving up these numbers, as opposed to the general public.

The public outcry will continue to grow, now that the Gauteng road users have become wiser to the real issues of the debate and are not fooled by lower tariffs, knowing these can and will be ratcheted up in time (Eskom style). In addition, they know that despite lower tariffs, the e-toll collection costs will remain high and this is the ultimate waste they will not tolerate. 

The blog sites and research will show the growing base of active citizens that the system only requires 20 to 40% of people to “not tag” for it to become unworkable.

Within a month or two of launch, by early March 2013, SANRAL’s Freeway Police patrols will attempt to make some high profile arrests in an attempt to coerce the general public into greater levels of compliance.

Within weeks of the e-toll launch, number plate cloning will rise as hundreds (maybe thousands) of angry and non-compliant commuters ride on the ticket of other vehicles with same make, model and colour as their own cars.

Innocent people will be caught up in the cross-fire of number plate cloning or general ignorance, and despite the reassurances from SANRAL that tagged vehicles will not suffer from this fate, they will. 

With AARTO not in place, the enforcement process will have to be channelled through the Criminal Procedures Act (CPA), with hundreds of individual court challenges taken up. Successful past tolling court challenges (such as the State v Smith for non-toll payment, where Mr Smith was successful) will be used to seek that one individual win in court, which will bring the e-toll house of cards tumbling down. 

In the meantime, the first quarter of 2013 will see Cosatu and other civil action groups flex their muscles, with ongoing road blockades becoming a regular nightmare, with the daily commuters ‘joining in’ and highway jams becoming a popular pastime and excuse for arriving late to work.

A handful of unruly citizens will probably take the law into their own hands and vandalised gantries will become a weekly sighting.

Shortly after launch, “scanner-jammer” sales will become the booming business of the day, as people purchase jamming devices (already available) to block the SANRAL’s (already outdated) gantry technology from reading their number plates. Other devices with similar effect such as subtle number plate tampering or infra-red lighting around number plates or rotating multiple license plates will add to the woes and headaches of the SANRAL Freeway Police force.

By month four, the Freeway Police will probably be bolstered as they try to cope with the non-compliance, pulling cars off the road and creating more traffic jams.

The courts will become overwhelmed with the number of cases coming their way and the decision to set up separate “e-toll” courts to reduce the burden on the normal courts will be made.

By month four, the country’s credit ratings could be negatively impacted by the ongoing strikes and civil disobedience.

Six to nine months later, the public outcry will get louder, people will share ways of bucking the system. The compliant tagged users will become despondent that they are paying while thousands of others are not.  

The road jams and strikes get worse, and with the 2014 elections on the horizon, debate within the ruling party will become strong enough to convince government to reverse the e-toll decision, thereby taking the wind out of the DA’s potential election willing slogan in Gauteng (which would probably read “If we were in power, we would take down the gantries”).

If only the authorities would look deeper at the history of international tolling and not be blinded by the sugar-coated scenarios as proposed by their agents.  

If only the authorities would see their critics as concerned citizens and purveyors of ideas, constructive input and possible solutions, instead of fobbing them off as ignorant opponents. 

While tolling has a place and works in many instances across the world, there are as many cases of failure. A common element in all failed tolling projects is society’s lack of support for the system, no matter how disciplined the environment, which generally stems from one or more of the following: poor public engagement, a lack of transparency, and higher than normal/ expected costs. In Gauteng’s case, all three aspects are prevalent and trust in SANRAL has all but broken down. The system is doomed to fail in the medium to long term. 

So you’d be forgiven if you asked: why is it that our government would force an aggressive, inefficient, cumbersome, unpopular and costly road tax into being, when there are far more effective, highly compliant, peaceful and less costly avenues open to them? 

I guess there are none so deaf as those who refuse to hear, or maybe, just maybe, it’s a case of too many benefits for a few that stand to be lost. DM

  • Wayne Duvenage

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