South Africa, Life, etc, Politics

E-tags: The silence before the storm?

By Alex Eliseev 17 April 2012

First the South African National Roads Agency tried the carrot approach, luring motorists with discounts and fancy advertising campaigns. Now it seems to have revealed the stick, pounding it menacingly against its palm. ALEX ELISEEV examines the growing anger and asks where this road leads.

Not that motorists needed another excuse to rage against e-tolling, but that’s exactly what they got at the end of last week. If you listened carefully, it must have sounded like a loud highway swerve along an already turbulent journey, which has seen protests and the launch of legal action.

On Friday, the department of transport released a new set of tariffs for the 49 gantries that have popped up like mushrooms around Gauteng. In this, it revealed that drivers who failed to register for e-tags – and who did not settle their accounts within seven days – would be charged “punitive rates” of up to six times higher than the discounted fee.

In other words, instead of paying about 30c per kilometre with an e-tag, an unregistered road user could land up paying R1.75.

Up until this point, the rules had been pretty clear: Drivers have the option of buying e-tags or joining the resistance and waiting for Sanral to track them down and bill them (this includes drivers from other provinces).

Buying e-tags is not compulsory but qualifies one for the discount. It also makes the road agency’s life easier and removes the hassle of sending bills, collecting money and chasing those who don’t cough up.

As things stand, about 320,000 e-tags have been bought. The AA’s Gary Ronald says this translates to about 10% of the cars on the province’s roads.

“Sanral would have been much happier if it had three or four times more tags sold,” he said. “This tells an interesting story that road users are hesitant to spend money on something so uncertain.”

Ronald also believes the lion’s share of e-tags have been bought by government fleets and big business. Sanral’s position is that it’s a mixture, including regular motorists.

Yesterday, we asked Sanral to give clarity on this, but received a copy of its latest statement, which defends the new tariffs.

The questions we raised would allow one to judge whether Sanral is putting on a brave face despite what appears to be a dismal uptake from the public. To convert more drivers it needs to make it seem as though streams of law-abiding citizens are lining up to register.

But reports began emerging last week that stations set up to facilitate the purchase of e-tags are standing empty. Descriptions of employees polishing their nails, reading magazines and watching the clock tick to 5pm made one think of a dusty saloon in the ghost town of a western movie.

Ronald further claims the latest tariffs should have been gazetted last year. This, he says, would have given companies and individuals time to budget for the year ahead. Publishing them on Friday was – in his words – perhaps the absolute last chance government had to do so. The eleventh hour, if you will.

With the official launch of e-tolling scheduled for the week after next, Ronald says the latest development has only added to the confusion. He thinks it was a case of someone in government sleeping instead of doing their job.

Others have been less kind, presenting other theories. The Democratic Alliance has described Sanral as arrogant and its handling of the entire project as “abhorrent”. It says the latest twist is a desperate move to force people to register for e-tags.

Sanral has, in turn, accused the DA and others of trying to sabotage the project.

“Road users should not rely on the fear-mongering and false promises of organisations with their own peculiar vested interests who claim that they will be able to stop e-tolling forever.”

The Opposition to Urban Tolling Alliance’s (OUTA) legal attack runs along similar lines. It claims the terms and conditions that accompany the purchase of an e-tag don’t comply with the Consumer Protection Act and that the public consultation process has been deeply flawed. The court case is due to start next week and OUTA is busy finalising its case, having received a lengthy legal response from Sanral.

The alliance’s hope is to interdict the launch and then fight to shut down the entire system. Sanral is gearing up to fight back.

At the same time, yesterday marked the end of a period granted to the public to comment on a set of controversial regulations, which threatened to see motorists arrested and their vehicles seized over non-payment. Sanral has said it plans to issue revised terms and conditions in a bid to allay fears.

With news breaking of the latest tariffs, the next wave of anger seems to have broken.

Cosatu secretary-general Zwelinzima Vavi tweeted yesterday: “Of course SANRAL is doing everything to intimidate us all to buy e-tags. This won’t succeed. The whole venture will fail.”

Already OUTA has said: “Never in the history of our democracy has there been such a strong unified outrage at an action taken by the authorities.”

While the government’s line is constant – “the new roads need to be paid for and buying e-tags makes economic sense” – new complaints have now been launched with the Consumer Commission over the tariffs and others loom on the sidelines.

Ronald says between the court case and the threat of continuing protest, the next few days should be interesting.

The question will be whether any one force – or a perfect storm of all of them – can derail a seemingly inevitable outcome? Both sides have anchored themselves firmly and are tugging at a rope threaded with money, politics, ego and the emotions of millions of people – which makes finding common ground difficult, if not impossible.

So will this swerve lead to a crash or will those empty e-tag centres eventually start filling up with angry but defeated customers? At the moment, no one has answers to these questions. But the future of this country will very much be painted by them. DM



Photo by Axel Bührmann.

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