South Africa

Analysis: The eTolls showdown this way comes

By Stephen Grootes 20 October 2013

On Friday, the Opposition to Urban Tolling Alliance (OUTA) officially threw in the towel in the legal ring, and announced that it would not be appealing the Supreme Court of Appeals' against it in the Constitutional Court. Legally, this means that eTolling can now go ahead, as soon as the practicalities are all good and ready. Basically, once those lovely white shiny gantries shining hypnotic purple lights are good to go, look forward to paying for a road you've used for free up until now. But this is really just the end of the beginning. Coming soon, to a political theatre near you, the thrilling production of eTolls! The Showdown. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

(Conflict alert: Grootes lives in Gauteng. He drives a car.)

The wonderful thing about the eTolls fight is that it’s not your typical argument in this society, in that our history doesn’t matter. Normally if you’re white or black, or middle class or poor or anything else, any argument we have is predicated on your identity, and not on what you actually say. eTolls is different, because it’s got nothing to do with Apartheid, our racial history, or even whether or not you thought Hansie was badly treated. Instead, it’s about the now and our future, and how we think we should be governed. The only whiff of ideology comes with the argument from Cosatu, that roads should not be privatised. But even that’s got very little to do with our past.

Amid all the arguments and fights around eTolls, the real issue is often missed. It’s not that we don’t like paying for new roads, or object to paying for a good new fast road that gets us somewhere faster and more safely. It’s that we object to paying for a road that we have used for free in the past. And we object to not being properly consulted about that plan before construction started. Everything else is just a side issue, even though there can be very important stories in their own right, such as how on earth we ended up with an Austrian firm doing the building, and why the cost of collection is so high.

So then, how will all of this now play out? The fact is that because this is not linked to our history as a nation, but mainly due to a failure of proper governance, the coalition of forces that has formed against eTolls cuts across your normal political barriers. You have Cosatu and the DA agreeing, and Julius Malema and Ivo Vegter singing from the same hymn-sheet. (Hell, even Zwelinzima Vavi and S’dumo Dlamini seem to agree on the eTools!)

Throw in the fact that the Gauteng ANC has opposed e-tolling from the start (but is running silent due to its other political problems right now) and you get a picture of a society united in its opposition to this one particular plan, that looks like it will be imposed by government, just before the general election.

Government and SANRAL here have several options, and have started to use a carrot and stick approach.

Carrot first: SANRAL hired Vusi Mona as a spindoctor. We said at the time it was an inspired choice because he is very, very good at his job. First came the simple task of voicing SANRAL’s case in public, then the adverts in many a publication, extolling the benefits of e-tolling. Some people think that’s somehow immoral, adults just think that’s good, and possibly effective, spin.

Now comes the stick, probably in the form of special eTolls courts. When the history of eTolls is written, this is going to be in the chapter under the title “The Big Mistake”. There is probably no quicker way to bring about the wrath of a people upon your head, than to try to criminalise not paying a tolling fee. This is hubris at work. No one in their right minds in a government would try to impose criminal records on normal, law-abiding people. By turning them into criminals, you’re simply going to make them lose all their respect for the law. They will respond by trashing gantries, by ignoring court orders, by spitting on SANRAL officials. It is, quite frankly, nonsense.

Those with long memories will remember a similar mistake, made by a leader who had too high an opinion of herself. Maggie Thatcher in the UK tried to impose a poll tax on her nation. Despite the warnings that the entire society, no matter which class, creed or race, was against her, she pressed on anyway. Several massive protests later, the tax was abolished, and she was soon out of power.

Here, if the ANC were not so assured of victory in next year’s elections, no official would dare breathe a suggestion such as eTolls courts in public. It would be a fast highway to political ruin. And at a time when the DA, with some wishful thinking, publicly claims it has a chance of winning Gauteng, this has all the hallmarks of high-handed arrogance about it.

It is simply impossible to morally justify a specialised court with resources and power, when we can’t even catch murderers and rapists. Any court proceeding is going to require testimony, because it would have to comply with the Constitution. This means SANRAL officials would have to swear oaths, and give evidence. Those accused would have to be assumed to be innocent until proven guilty. This means that if you wanted to, you could tie SANRAL up for months, just be making them go through with the entire procedure to get their R50. And then, if they came at you for the costs of the prosecution, you could try to delay them again. Essentially, the possibility of the specialised courts being hated is so high, and the individual financial stakes are so low, that it wouldn’t be worth it.

Think of it like this. Technically, it’s illegal to not pay your R250 TV license. Do you know anyone who’s been prosecuted for not paying it? [NB: This is not a judgement on quality of the SABC programming. Not at all. – Ed]

And even if people were given “criminal records”, it would simply not matter. No one is going to judge a person, whether they be a prospective job candidate, or an opposition politician, for not paying their eTolls. Rather, they will become people on the side of good, even if they break “the law”.

But the real damage will be to the way people view the law. They will not take easily to be called criminals. They will turn around and claim it is government that is full of criminals. They will object in all the ways they can. And no court will ever been seen as neutral, fair and objective again.

And it will really harden even further the hearts of most people against the entire project. Any kind of crackdown is going to be met with more resistance. At the heart of the political problem here is that the people were genuinely not involved in the decision in any way. While that may not be legal situation at the moment, that doesn’t matter. As we’ve learnt in so many sorrowful ways in our country over the last ten years, when it comes to a fight between the law and the politics, the politics wins. And the politicians in this case are on the wrong side of the politics, so they are going to lose too.

We may well see eTolls going ahead, we may even see some people paying to use the roads. But the price they pay will be nothing compared to the price paid by the politicians. Beware of going against the wishes of your own people. DM

Grootes is the Senior Political Reporter for Eyewitness News, and the host of the Midday Report on Talk Radio 702 and 567 Cape Talk. He is so obsessed by politics, he even wrote a book about it.

Photo: Cars drive below a road toll in Johannesburg October 7, 2013. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko


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