South Africa

E-tolls: To buy or defy, now’s the time to decide

By Greg Nicolson 15 April 2013

Drive in Gauteng? Got an e-tag yet? No? You better go to a supermarket or Sanral customer service centre and pick up the beeping device because in two months, like it or not, e-tolling will start on Gauteng freeways. That’s the message from Sanral, but as ever, e-tolls face fierce opposition and the implementation may not be as easy as the road agency hopes. By GREG NICOLSON.

The South African National Roads Agency (Sanral) is confident e-tolling will start in the next two months and sent a press release last week encouraging road users to accept that the battle is decided and it’s time road users purchased the season’s must-have auto accessory – an e-tag. Transport Minister Ben Martins has supported the roads agency’s comments, telling Business Day, “E-tolling is on track. It has been to Parliament and now it’s waiting for approval by the National Council of Provinces (NCOP) and from there it will be implemented. I suggest you get your e-tags now so that you can get a discount.”

The NCOP has to finalise the Transport and Related Matters Amendment Bill before it can be pushed through the National Assembly. Martins will then officially announce the tariffs and in only eight weeks the controversial tolling system could begin.

Sanral wants the province’s almost four million registered vehicles to be signed up to the scheme and has dismissed the obstacles to e-tolling. “We have a responsibility to collectively build this country and are grateful that there are individual and corporate citizens who see the value of this project and are prepared to play their part in this regard,” Sanral head of communications Vusi Mona said in a statement last week. Sanral had tracked 2.5 million vehicles and found that the majority of users will pay under R200 a month and less than one percent of users will pay R550, the maximum monthly cost, added Mona.

He thanked the public for having already registered 600,000 vehicles for e-tags. Asked on Sunday, Mona told Daily Maverick about 50% of these relate to private individuals. Most of the remaining 50% were registered by corporate customers, with government departments accounting for a “very tiny proportion”. Sanral will soon start its campaign to register government departments, said Mona. He wasn’t able to provide the specific figures before Daily Maverick’s deadline and didn’t detail what percentage of corporate customers come from state-owned enterprises.

The Opposition to Urban Tolling Alliance (Outa) slammed these figures. “Sanral’s claim that there have been 600,000 tags signed up is misleading, as we know they have given most of these to the fleet management and government organisations. We estimate that less than 60,000 of Gauteng’s 3.5 million motorists have purchased an e-tag,” Outa chairman Wayne Duvenage stated in a response to Sanral’s announcement. “The public management sessions in November last year also sent a clear message of rejection to the authorities on their e-toll plans. Our enquiries about tag sales at some of their customer sales centres have revealed dismal sales of less than a handful of tags a week.”

Duvenage said the claim that the majority of road users would pay under R100 a month is “very deceiving”. “The average user travelling between Tshwane and Johannesburg or East and West Rand will be paying over R300 a month,” he said. Outa expects the tariff and maximum monthly costs to once again be lowered in a bid to woo drivers.

In January, Outa was granted leave to appeal the North Gauteng High Court’s dismissal of its application to have e-tolls scrapped and the matter is due to be heard by the Supreme Court of Appeal later this year. Mona said the pending matter has no bearing on the future of e-tolls: “Some motorists may be erroneously waiting for the appeal application by Outa before they can consider registering. But that appeal has nothing to do with whether e-tolling should go ahead or not. That question was settled by the Constitutional Court last year when it set aside the interdict that prevented Sanral from implementing e-tolling.”

Cosatu, which has been a key voice against tolling, disagrees. “Sanral are also contemptuously disregarding the legal move to secure an interdict to stop Sanral levying or collecting e-tolls, which will be heard by the Supreme Court of Appeal in Bloemfontein,” said spokesman Patrick Craven. Sanral’s announcement was “arrogant”, said Craven, and Cosatu “remains opposed in principle to this move to privatise our public highways and create a two-tier public transport service, with a good service on tolled roads for those with the money to pay, while the majority will be forced to struggle with congested side-roads or woeful public transport services.”

Cosatu has indicated it will continue to demonstrate against e-tolls and mounting public pressure may be one of the only ways to stop the e-toll system from proceeding. The Democratic Alliance’s Jack Bloom sees a looming fight between the government and citizens. If road users refuse to purchase an e-tag the system could become ungovernable. Just who has registered for the 600,000 e-tags is a crucial factor in that battle. Sanral wants to encourage road users to follow the crowd while the system’s opponents realise that any system of resistance can only work on a mass scale.

The transport minister last week said the Criminal Procedure Act will be used to force commuters to pay tariffs on tolled roads but Justice Project South Africa has questioned his motivations for quoting the act. The Administrative Adjudication of Road Traffic Offences Act was implemented for the purposes of “alleviating the burden on the courts of trying offenders for infringements” and essentially decriminalises traffic infringements while also stipulating a fine of R250 or R500 for toll dodgers.  

“It is surprising that the minister would choose to defy legislation that was enacted by his own department in what seems to be an attempt to introduce an element of fear of criminal prosecution into the e-toll saga,” said Justice Project SA. “The minister’s further statement that he is ‘comfortable that Sanral will be able to handle the volumes’ is moot, given the fact that the Criminal Procedure Act requires Magistrates Courts to adjudicate over matters brought in terms of the Act – not simply issuing a notice in terms of the Act.

“The criminal courts system is already clogged and unable to deal with existing traffic matters timeously. Introducing what could conceivably be hundreds of thousands (if not more) additional summonses and cases into them monthly can only be described as completely impractical and for that matter, frivolous,” the organisation said, describing the difficulty of trying to hold toll dodgers to account.

Sanral is confident that e-tolls will finally begin in eight weeks and the law will hold dodgers to account. But the next two months will be crucial in determining whether the public allows it to work or whether there is public defiance of what detractors call an incredibly wasteful way of paying for public infrastructure. While the saga has been dragging on for years, the roads agency has set the date for the final battle. Outa will continue to pursue the matter in court, but whether the system survives largely depends on the extent to which public outrage over the tolls translates into public defiance. DM

Photo by Greg Marinovich/Daily Maverick.

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